A buoyant and confident Barack Obama took the oath of office Monday for a second term as U.S. president, predicting that a resilient nation which has endured a series of crises will emerge stronger if leaders can work together for progress, including gay rights and immigration reform.
Four years after expressing grim resolve to overcome an economic crisis and military morass, the 44th president laid out a liberal governing philosophy for a second term that mixed can-do American optimism with must-do American action.
“This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience,” he said in a tautly written, crisply delivered inaugural speech. “A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together.”
Obama took the oath of office at 11:50 a.m. EST from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, with his left hand on a stack of bibles including ones used by civil rights icon Martin Luther King and President Abraham Lincoln. Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first Hispanic American ever to administer an inaugural oath.
The president’s 15-minute inaugural address, coming 50 years after King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the other end of the National Mall, echoed the martyred minister’s calls for equality, with a distinctive 21st century edge. Invoking the ideals of America’s founding fathers, the 44th president made history by defining same-sex marriage and legal status for undocumented immigrants as modern civil rights priorities. Obama became the first president ever to utter the word “gay” during an inaugural address.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity — until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
An enthusiastic crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands braved cold winds and cloudy skies to hear Obama’s words, but the turnout was significantly smaller than the estimated 1.2 million to 1.8 million who attended the history-making inauguration of 2009, which marked the first time an American of African ancestry had become president.
While Monday’s inaugural address focused on philosophical concepts such as hope and progress, it was short on specific plans to rein in a $17 trillion national debt, increase tepid economic growth and rein in explosive entitlement spending, something skeptical Republicans quickly pointed out.
“It was a very liberal speech, checking off every ideological box of the left,” said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. “I was struck by how the speech completely ignored our immense fiscal and entitlement challenges.”
Some presidential scholars viewed Obama’s speech as as a liberal counterpoint to Ronald Reagan’s eloquent 1981 inaugural address, which shared Obama’s optimism but included the famous Reagan phrase, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Obama himself gave a knowing nod to Reagan’s anti-government philosophy but reached a different ideological conclusion.
“We have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone,” Obama told a cheering crowd that interrupted his speech 25 times with applause. “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”
Cindy Rugeley, a political science professor at Texas Tech University, said the speech “reminded all of us of what he is about, who he is, and about the fundamental values of our country.”
“In my opinion, it was an excellent speech,” she said. “I would actually put it alongside Reagan’s 1981 inaugural in that it talked about America’s better self. He also reminded us that American exceptionalism is not defined economically but by our values.”
While Obama avoided the economic policy debates that have paralyzed Washington over the past two years, he waded into some of the other hot-button issues of the day, including climate change. The president also placed the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre into historical perspective, mentioning how American children should be safe from harm “from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown.”
The president did not specifically mention guns, gun violence or gun-related legislation. But Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said that “Newtown was very much a part” of the inauguration.
“A number of my colleagues have emphasized how significant they thought it was… that the president reminded America about the tragedy and how it has to be addressed,” the Democratic senator said.
The president blazed new political trails when he linked Seneca Falls, N.Y., Selma, Ala., and the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village, N.Y. — the sites of key events in women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights history. Obama’s embrace of marriage equality for same-sex couples would have been difficult to image even four years ago, when the new president still resisted calls to legalize gay marriage.
“President Barack Obama made history … by connecting the lives of committed and loving lesbian and gay couples fighting for marriage equality to this nation’s proud tradition of equal rights for all,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay and lesbian rights organization. “By lifting up the lives of LGBT families for the very first time in an inaugural address, President Obama sent a clear message to LGBT young people from the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains that this country’s leaders will fight for them until equality is the law of the land.”
Obama may also have had another audience in mind: the members of the U.S. Supreme Court who were seating several feet from the podium and who soon will be deciding the future of same-sex marriage.
“President Obama’s eloquent and impassioned defense of gay marriage may end up being the most memorable moment” of the speech, said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. “This is especially true given his evolving position on the issue and the Supreme Court’s impending major decision. The president did his best lobbying job with Chief Justice Roberts and other associate justices listening attentively.”
Obama didn’t mention Democrats or Republicans in his speech — but he took several not-so-subtle digs at GOP lawmakers who have blocked much of his policy agenda for the past two years.
“The speech was not overtly partisan, but the subtext was there,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “When he said, ‘we cannot mistake absolutism for principle,’ he was talking about the Republican right, not the Democratic left.”