President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk along the inauguration… (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Allowing that "our journey is not complete," President Obama offered a robust liberal vision of America in his second inaugural address, embracing gay rights, action on climate change and a substantial role for government even as he acknowledged the challenges of a bitterly divided nation.
An ocean of American flags waved under overcast skies and hundreds of thousands of faces tilted up just before noon Monday as Obama stood on the Capitol's West Front and repeated the oath of office in America's 57th presidential inauguration.
Chants of "O-ba-ma" rose, echoing from a packed National Mall. The atmosphere was festive, but the fevered excitement that welcomed America's first African American president four years ago had been toned down. Still, though the crowd appeared smaller, it may rank as one of the largest for an inaugural celebration.
In an 18-minute speech, Obama paid tribute to the vast cultural, demographic and political changes that twice helped sweep him into office.
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He also highlighted themes of national unity, borrowing language that even the most ardent tea party follower would endorse — praising "the patriots of 1776," describing freedom as "a gift from God," endorsing healthy skepticism of "central authority," and describing as "fiction" the notion that government can solve all ills.
But Obama made clear he views government as essential to fix the nation's problems and to guarantee the security of its citizens, reaffirming Democratic ideology stretching from the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
"Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative," he said. "They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great."
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The remarks were an allusion to one of the fiercest arguments of the presidential campaign — when Republican nominee Mitt Romney described 47% of Americans, Obama supporters, as overly reliant on government — as well as to attacks on entitlement programs during recent budget battles in Congress.
Obama became the first president to use an inaugural address to call for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians, equating it with landmark movements for women's suffrage and African American civil rights.
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," Obama said as the crowd applauded.
Obama, who long said he was evolving on same-sex marriage, waited until his reelection campaign was in full swing last year before he announced his support.
Speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, Obama alluded to the slain civil rights leader after putting his hand on two Bibles — one owned by King, and the other used at the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.
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Obama first took the oath of office from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. at the White House on Sunday, when his term officially began. On Monday, Roberts administered the oath again, and the two men spoke slowly and carefully — unlike four years ago, when they mangled the text and had to arrange a private do-over at the White House.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both Democrats, and their spouses were among the dignitaries who bundled up in heavy coats on a wintry gray morning to witness the public oath. The other living former presidents, Republicans George H.W. Bush, who was recently released from two months in the hospital, and his son, George W. Bush, were absent. Both issued warm statements of congratulations to the Obamas.
In his address, Obama offered an ideological primer on Democrats' beliefs, rather than specifics of the fights likely to dominate the upcoming session of Congress.
He cited Newtown, referring to the horrific elementary school shooting in Connecticut last month, but did not explicitly mention gun violence or firearms control.
He declared that the nation could not succeed "when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," the kind of language that sparked Republican complaints during the presidential race that he was engaging in class warfare. But he did not say how he would rectify the disparity.
And while he emphasized the need to rise above "party or faction," he aimed a series of barely concealed zingers at his opponents, including those who deny climate change. He said failure to respond to that threat "would betray our children and future generations," but offered no clues of what he might do.
"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle," he said in another pointed passage, "or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."