Turning the page on years of war and recession, President Barack Obama summoned a divided nation Monday to act with “passion and dedication” to broaden equality and prosperity at home, nurture democracy around the world and combat global warming for generations to come as he embarked on a second term before a vast and cheering crowd that spilled down the historic National Mall.
“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands,” the 44th president declared in a second inaugural address.
In a unity plea to politicians and the nation at large, he called for “collective action” to confront challenges and said, “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.”
Elected four years ago as America’s first black president, Obama spoke from specially constructed flag-bedecked stands outside the Capitol after reciting the oath of office that all presidents have uttered since the nation’s founding.
The events highlighted a day replete with all the fanfare that a security-minded capital could muster — from white-gloved Marine trumpeters who heralded the arrival of dignitaries on the inaugural stands to the mid-winter orange flowers that graced the tables at a traditional lunch with lawmakers inside the Capitol.
The weather was relatively warm, in the mid-40s, and while the crowd was not as large as on Inauguration Day four years ago, it was counted in the hundreds of thousands.
Big enough that he turned around as he was leaving the inaugural stands to savor the view one final time.
“I’m not going to see this again,” said the man whose political career has been meteoric — from the Illinois Legislature to the U.S. Senate and the White House before marking his 48th birthday.
On a day of renewal for democracy, everyone seemed to have an opinion, and many seemed eager to share it.
“I’m just thankful that we’ve got another four years of democracy that everyone can grow in,” said Wilbur Cole, 52, a postman from suburban Memphis, Tenn., who spent part of the day visiting the civil rights museum there at the site where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. The inauguration this year shared the day with King’s birthday holiday.
Less upbeat, Frank Pinto, 62, watched the inauguration in Hartford, Conn., as the president was sworn in and spoke. An unemployed construction contractor, he said that because of Obama’s policies, “My grandkids will be in debt and their kids will be in debt.”
The tone was less overtly political in the nation’s capital, where bipartisanship was on the menu in the speechmaking and at the congressional lunch.
In his brief, 18-minute speech, Obama did not dwell on the most pressing challenges of the past four years. He barely mentioned the struggle to reduce the federal deficit, a fight that has occupied much of his and Congress’ time and promises the same in months to come.
He spoke up for the poor — “Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it” — and for those on the next-higher rung — “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” The second reference echoed his calls from the presidential campaign that catapulted him to re-election
“A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun,” said the president who presided over the end to the U.S. combat role in Iraq, set a timetable for doing the same in Afghanistan and took office when the worst recession in decades was still deepening.
“We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom,” he said in a relatively brief reference to foreign policy.
In a jab at climate-change doubters, he said, “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.” He said America must lead in the transition to sustainable energy resources.
His speech hinted only barely at issues likely to spark opposition from Republicans who hold power in the House.
He defended Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security as programs that “do not make us a nation of takers; they free is to take the risks that made this country great.”
He referred briefly to making “the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit,” a rhetorical bow to a looming debate in which Republicans are seeking spending cuts in health care programs to slow the rise in a $16.4 trillion national debt.
Moments after being sworn in, the president signed nomination papers for four new appointees to his Cabinet, Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state, White House chief of staff Jacob Lew to be treasury secretary, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and White House adviser John Brennan to head the CIA.