WASHINGTON Barack Hussein Obama launched his second term as the nation’s 44th president Monday, urging an increasingly divided nation to move past polarizing debates and live up to its founding ideals by uniting to solve the country’s problems.
“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,” he said on a crisp, sun-filled afternoon. “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.”
His 18-minute inaugural address – delivered in front of hundreds of thousands of people and televised to millions across the globe – offered a clear agenda for his second term, marshaling the federal government to protect the rights of gays and lesbians, combat climate change, provide opportunities for illegal immigrants, and help the downtrodden and middle class get a better foothold in a changing and still fragile economy.
A sea of spectators packed the National Mall to watch Obama, 51, sworn into office a few minutes before noon on the west side of the U.S. Capitol, the first Democrat in seven decades to twice win a majority of the popular vote. First lady Michelle Obama and daughters, Sasha, 11, and Malia, 14, looked on, as did former Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The two living Republican former presidents didn’t attend, the ailing George H.W. Bush and son George W. Bush.
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“O-bam-a!” the crowd chanted. “O-bam-a!”
Noticeably grayer than when he first took office, Obama had officially started his second term 24 hours earlier, after a brief private ceremony at the White House. Monday’s proceedings followed the tradition of delaying the public inauguration a day when the official date prescribed by the Constitution falls on a Sunday.
The nation’s 57th inauguration consisted of five days of patriotic parades and fancy balls, solemn prayers and countless receptions for donors and supporters.
“At what place would you wanna be on Inauguration Day?” asked Camille Page of Corona, Calif. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. . . . I will be proud to tell my grandchildren about it.”
Monday’s events were jubilant, though they didn’t have the same level of excitement as four years ago when a young senator promising hope and change became the nation’s first black president. There were no official estimates of the audience Monday. Inaugural organizers said they believed 1 million attended, though they did not explain their estimate. Regardless, it was far short of the 1.8 million who attended in 2009 while still an above-average audience for a second-term inauguration.
“Last time there was a little bit more excitement. It was brand-new,” Kerry Kelty of Pittsburgh said of Obama’s first inauguration. “I don’t think people are disappointed, but reality hit.”
The crowds led to a maze of street closures, clogged subways, heightened security and the National Mall filled with 1,500 portable toilets, five large-screen TVs and 6,000 members of the National Guard in town assisting with crowd control.
After a bitter election and constant clashes on Capitol Hill, Obama used his inaugural address to encourage those with differing views to work together to accomplish something, even if it’s not everything.
“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay,” he said. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” the president said. “We must act; we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
In his second term, Obama faces a polarized political climate. He must address fiscal issues – tax revisions and spending cuts – and pressing international obligations: stopping Iran’s nuclear program, navigating an end to the war in Afghanistan and avoiding tensions with China over the administration’s “pivot” to Asia. In the weeks since he defeated Republican Mitt Romney, he’s already battled with Republicans in Congress over tax increases and spending reductions.
Outlining the nation he envisions, he sounded the themes of his recent campaign as a call for using the federal government to shift the benefits of the country and its economy to the poor and middle class and away from the wealthy.
“We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” he said. “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.”
He connected past sacrifices to today’s struggles for equality: civil rights for gays, equal pay for women, economic equality for the poor.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still,” Obama said. “Just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Republicans, who joined Obama at the White House in the morning for coffee and later at the Capitol for lunch, expressed hope that the two sides could work together on fiscal issues.
“The president’s second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Republicans are eager to work with the president on achieving this common goal, and we firmly believe that divided government provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Together, there is much we can achieve.”
The Obamas and Bidens started their day with a prayer service at St. John’s Episcopal Church a few blocks from the White House, where every president since James Madison has worshipped.
At the service, Pastor Andy Stanley of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., told the story of Jesus moving from being the most powerful person in the room to a servant washing disciples’ feet and directing others to do the same.
“What do you do when in a position of power? You leverage that power for the benefit of other people in the room,” he said. “Mr. President, you have an awfully big room.”
A few hours later, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. administered the 35-word oath – the same one recited by every American president since George Washington.– at the West Front of the Capitol, which was draped with red, white and blue bunting.
On a day the nation honors Martin Luther King Jr., Obama placed his hand on two Bibles – King’s traveling Bible and the burgundy velvet-covered Lincoln Bible. Obama also had used the Lincoln Bible four years ago, the first to do so since it was used by Abraham Lincoln himself.
Michelle Obama smiled broadly, while even members of Congress snapped photos with their phones.
“Congratulations, Mr. President,” Roberts said just before a 21-gun salute boomed.
Singers Beyonce, James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson performed. Richard Blanco, the youngest ever inaugural poet and the first Hispanic or gay person to recite a poem at the swearing-in ceremony, read his “One Today.” Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered the invocation. Carter said the ceremony showed “unprecedented diversity – from the speeches to the prayers to the singers. . . . It showed a spirit of anticipation for the next four years.”
Minutes before Obama’s oath, Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and fourth female judge to administer the oath.
Afterward, Obama and Biden headed to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall to dine on steamed lobster and hickory grilled bison at a luncheon attended by 200, including Supreme Court justices and congressional leaders, sitting at tables adorned with bright orange flowers. Obama was presented with a custom hand-cut crystal Lenox vase with an etching of the White House. The tradition of the luncheon dates to President William McKinley in 1897.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, presented Obama and Biden with the flags that flew over the Capitol. “To you gentlemen, I say congratulations and Godspeed,” he said.
Later, the Obamas led an inaugural parade – featuring eight official floats, 59 groups, 9,000 people, 1,500 service members and 200 animals – the 1.7 miles from the Capitol up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. They sat in a reviewing stand adorned with bulletproof glass and the presidential seal in front of the White House. Most of the onlookers waved American flags and chanted “four more years,” but a handful of protesters held “God hates Obama” signs.
In the evening, the president and first lady attended two official inaugural balls, one for members of the military and another for the public.
The president danced with Mrs. Obama, wearing a custom Jason Wu ruby colored chiffon and velvet gown, to “Let’s Stay Together” sung by Jennifer Hudson.
At the commander-in-chief ball, Obama expressed “the extraordinary gratitude not just of me as your commander-in-chief but the thanks of all the American people.” He also spoke via video to members of the military on the ground in Afghanistan. “Every single day we’re thinking of you,” he said.
Erika Bolstad, Sean Cockerham, Anne-Kathrin Gerstlauer, Franco Ordonez, Maria Recio and Lindsay Wise contributed to this article.