President Obama stresses individual rights, evokes King, Lincoln in address
January 22, 2013 8:00 PM
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama wave after dancing during the Commander-In-Chief's Inaugural Ball.
President Obama gives the crowd along Pennsylvania Avenue a "thumbs up" during the inaugural parade Monday in Washington.
By Tracie Mauriello Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Just before a cold, gray noon Monday, President Barack Obama placed his left hand on two Bibles, one used by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other by Abraham Lincoln, and took the oath of office for his second term.
Then he drew on both men, along with a multitude of American figures and events, as he spoke from the Capitol, stamping his inaugural repeatedly with a refrain that began with the Constitution's "We the people."
As the president spoke, he looked out over hundreds of thousands of American flags being waved by a crowd that extended from the National Mall to the Washington Monument, creating a rippling sea of red, white and blue.
His speech used the cadence of scripture and sermon to push for continued work on unfinished business promised in the founding of the nation and the crucial battles it has fought over freedom and equality. Mr. Obama inserted very specific modern issues into those refrains, however, including gay rights, health care, immigration and climate change.
Delivered on the day commemorating King, the inaugural address echoed the theme that drove the civil rights leader's "I Have a Dream" speech of Aug. 28, 1963.
"When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir," King said, and he went on to argue that the basis of that promissory note was in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
Mr. Obama quoted the same "self-evident" line in the opening of his speech, and went on to riff on the twin themes of "the people" and "created equal."
"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; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; 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."
He also evoked Lincoln, a president he admires and has studied. "Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free," he said, using a phrase from a Lincoln speech. "We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together."
The Democratic president pushed for renewed energy on the areas he has outlined as priorities for his second term as the nation's 44th chief executive at a time when a decade of war is ending and the economic recession that consumed much of his first term is receding.
In the 18-minute speech, the 51-year-old Mr. Obama said that "our journey is not complete" and urged the nation to set a course toward prosperity and freedom for all its citizens and to protect the social safety net that has sheltered the poor, elderly and needy.
"We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class," he said.
After a bruising presidential campaign and relentless fiscal fights, Monday's inaugural celebrations marked a brief respite from the partisan gridlock that has consumed the past two years.
Mr. Obama invited several lawmakers to the White House for coffee before his speech, including the Republican leaders with whom he has frequently been at odds.
Among them was the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In a statement following Mr. Obama's swearing-in, Mr. McConnell said the president's second term represents "a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day."
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., was upbeat: "Kris and I wanted our children to witness this celebration of our democracy. We brought Patrick and Bridget to the west front of the Capitol Building to see history firsthand. I hope the sight of the three branches of our government, both parties, standing together will teach them -- and remind us all -- that we were sent here to do the people's work, to solve the problems we face, and to leave to our children a stronger, safer, more prosperous nation."
Pennsylvania's senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey, praised the speech for its mix of ideals and concrete detail.
"It was very practical and focused on the challenges we confront. The speech focused on those challenges and also had a note of inspiration to it.
"Also, I think it was good that he didn't gloss over the divisions," he added.
Newly elected Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said, "It was a real privilege for me to be there. I've watched these on TV for 40 years, and this was my first time at one. We were up on the podium with the president looking out over the Mall. It was a bit overwhelming."
Mr. Rothfus said he was disappointed Mr. Obama didn't stress jobs. "There are still a lot of hurting people out there, unemployed people." When more people are working, more people are paying taxes and increasing gross domestic product and that helps the whole economy, he said.
Nevertheless, he said, "It's a new day, a new beginning."
Those in the president's own party said his words captured his determination to continue to fight despite difficult times.
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said the president has become less optimistic and more realistic after four years in office, but he still believes the country can come together.
"His speech back [in 2009] was filled with hope and optimism, which has been tempered with four years of reality," Mr. Doyle said. "This president, four years later, has a much more sober outlook on what we can do, but nonetheless he challenged the country to do the things it has been resisting." Those include action on climate change, Medicaid, Medicare, education, market regulation, health care, gay rights and -- less directly -- gun control, Mr. Doyle said.
"He laid out the reality that's in front of us," Mr. Doyle said. "That tells me this is a president going into his second term with the governing principle of fairness -- that we're not going to forsake the most vulnerable people in our country to achieve a budget agreement."
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, working as an MSNBC commentator, said the president's experience in dealing with difficult issues and the intricacies of D.C. politics is evident: "I think his message shows that experience. He issued a clarion call for cooperation in dealing with our problems," Mr. Rendell said. "He certainly stated the principles he believes in, which is that government has an important role in affecting all Americans. ... It was a call for moving forward."
Mr. Doyle said that the aggressiveness of the agenda shows a president who "still intends to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, not someone that's writing his history book already."
Before the ceremony, a group of Tuskegee airmen were brought onto the platform area to watch the inauguration. Many were in wheelchairs.
The crowd nearby cheered for them.
"Thank you. Thank you for your service," Angela Thompson, 48, of Chicago told them as they passed.
"You make me want to cry," one serviceman told her as he moved toward his seat.
Ms. Thompson said she attended the 2009 inauguration and returned this year because it's exciting. "This signals so much hope for the future.
"The country is politically divided, but everyone wants what's best for the country. They just have to get together and do it. There are only so many members of Congress. The world is bigger than that, bigger than their squabbles," she said.
Vice President Joe Biden also was sworn in for his second term as the nation's second in command. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, several Cabinet secretaries and dozens of lawmakers were on hand to bear witness to history.
Monday's oaths were purely ceremonial. The Constitution stipulates that presidents begin their new terms at noon on Jan. 20, and in keeping with that requirement, Mr. Obama was sworn in Sunday in a small ceremony at the White House. Because inaugural celebrations are historically not held on Sundays, organizers pushed the public events to Monday.
Mr. Obama's second inaugural attracted a smaller crowd than the first, when 1.8 million people jammed the National Mall to witness the swearing-in of the nation's first black president. Officials estimated up to 700,000 people attended Monday's event.
Many had been to the first inaugural.
Renee Anderson, 52, grew up in Homewood. Now she lives in Mitchellville, Md. She was decked out in Steelers gear: jacket, hat, charm bracelet, scarf, blanket all Steelers. She came in 2009, too. "I expected he would govern well and he has. Now I want to see him do more with jobs and the economy."
Her husband, Tim, 54, said the president had a successful first term. "He said he would pass health care and he did. He said he would end the war in Afghanistan and he did. He said he would reduce military presence overseas and he did."
Immigration is one area in which he wasn't able to fulfill his promise, Mr. Anderson said, "but he tried and there is hope it will get done. If there's one area where Republicans and Democrats might compromise, it's on immigration," he said. "The table is set. There's opposition, but I think they'll be able to get something done."
After the Capitol ceremony was finished, the inaugural parade crawled along Pennsylvania Avenue, with the president and first lady emerging from their car twice. They walked a few blocks each time, including past the Old Post Office Pavilion, where camera-wielding crowds stood 30- and 40-people deep to catch a glimpse.
All along the route, revelers screeched, screamed and took photos as the first couple waved and mouthed "Thank you" to their admirers.
Behind the Obamas came a string of 60 marching groups and eight floats, including one from Pennsylvania to honor Mr. Biden's Scranton roots. More than 8,800 people and 200 animals took part. The parade included drum corps, marching bands, drill teams, ambulance squads, military units, Boy Scouts and dancers representing every state.
The parade began about an hour later than scheduled because the congressional luncheon that preceded it ended later than expected.
"I always enjoyed this lunch more than anything we did in the Capitol ... because it really is the place where we get together unlike any other time we gather," Mr. Biden told legislative leaders at the luncheon. "It's always a new beginning every time we're in this room. And there's a sense of possibilities and a sense of opportunity and a sense -- sometimes fleeting -- but a sense that maybe we can really begin to work together."