WASHINGTON – A self-assured President Obama on Monday used his second inaugural address to lay out a bold liberal vision of the American future, drawing direct links between the origins of the republic and some of the most vexing political issues of the day.
The usual inauguration choreography of prayers and poems and crowds became a powerful demonstration of history’s arc: The first African-American president was taking his second oath of office on a day named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall where King thundered almost 50 years ago about the United States’ unfulfilled promise.
On a day when the president was at times confident and wistful, solemn and jubilant, he called on the American people to join him in creating a new nation grounded in the old ideas of equality and opportunity.
“What makes us exceptional, what makes us America, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago,” Obama said. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” He linked the struggle for civil rights and women’s suffrage to the debate over same-sex marriage, and promised to reform immigration legislation and fight climate change.
“We the people still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” he said.
Obama spoke to a throng bundled against the cold weather in scarves and hats. Attendees had come by plane, by car, and very crowded Metro rail to see his second inauguration.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, spoke of “a great cloud of witnesses – unseen by the naked eye, but all around us – thankful that their living was not in vain.”
The 18 1/2 -minute address showed a president who had shaken off the personal caution and political gridlock that had hemmed in his ambitions before.
His speech did not soar as much as it hurried: bouncing from goal to goal, building an agenda that could define his party – and his legacy.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” Obama said, in an address that quoted the Declaration of Independence, and repeated the opening words of the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people.”
“We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial,” Obama said. “And that it will be up to those who stand here in four years – and 40 years, and 400 years hence – to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”
Obama was the first president to use the word “gay” in his inaugural address. He had made outreach to gay voters and gay donors a key part of his re-election strategy. On Monday, he cast the battle for gay rights as part of a longer, broader struggle to make good on the declaration’s promise that “all of us are created equal.”
Obama listed three turning points: There was Seneca Falls, the town in New York where a convention in 1848 helped launch the women’s rights movement. There was Selma, referring to a civil rights march in Alabama in 1965.
And then there was Stonewall, a reference to 1969 riots in New York City that were considered the spark that created the modern gay-rights movement. The Stonewall Inn was a bar made famous by a police raid. Obama seemed to be saying that this unlikely place belongs among the hallowed spots of American history.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said. “For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
Sitting in a reviewing stand near the White House was Jody Huckaby, the executive director of the activist group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “It’s monumental. It’s historic,” Huckaby said afterward. The message, as he saw it: “The American promise … this administration is serious about it for everyone.”
As Obama spoke from the Capitol’s West Front, a flag-waving crowd spilled down the Mall toward the Washington Monument. Their numbers appeared smaller than in 2009, when 1 million or more people watched Obama’s first swearing-in.
The best measure of the difference may have been ridership on Metro: As of 4 p.m., about 538,000 rides had been taken. At the same time four years ago, there had been 807,000.
Still, for many in the crowd, it was a moment whose magic was not dulled by repetition.
Sandra and Ronnie Robinson of Birmingham, Ala., set up folding chairs to watch the ceremony. Ronnie Robinson, 54, said he was in first grade in 1963 when white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young girls were killed.
Attending Obama’s inauguration on the King holiday, he said, “is the culmination to the dream. If we’re ever going to get close to the dream, this is as close as we’re going to get.”
Like the Robinsons, Katherine Ward, a Navy officer, was attending her first inauguration. Ward, who is black, said she was serving in Iraq when Obama entered office.
“Now I’m here to cheer him on,” she said. “Everything Martin Luther King marched for and spoke on has come true.”