WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama renewed his oath of office just before noon Monday and used the inaugural stage to advocate for a more equal and progressive nation.
In his 19 minute address before a crowd that reached from the steps of the Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument, Obama prioritized contemporary issues like gay rights and swift solutions for climate change—two topics that have never been mentioned outright in an inaugural address. He invoked the founding fathers and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to proclaim that for America to continue to thrive, its people must uphold the promise to comprise a nation where all people are free and equal.
“What makes us exceptional—what makes us America—is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Obama said.
Although the density of this year’s crowd fell far short of the record-breaking 1.8 million-person turnout at Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, a crowd estimated to hold 600,000 people braved the frigid Washington, D.C. January morning to watch the re-inauguration of America’s first black president. Although Obama was officially sworn in midday Sunday in private, the public ceremony, which coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was filled with the usual pomp and fanfare of a traditional Jan. 20 inauguration.
Obama’s focus on equality was reflected in the morning’s itinerary. He surrounded himself with a diverse group of speakers and performers including civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, who delivered the invocation, and poet Richard Blanco, who, at age 44, simultaneously broke ground as the youngest, first Latino and first gay inaugural poet. Blanco delivered a poem entitled “One Today” that promoted tolerance via the collective, shared experiences of all Americans.
“One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes tired from work: some days guessing at the weather of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother who knew how to give, or forgiving a father who couldn’t give what you wanted,” Blanco read.
Beyoncé Knowles sang the national anthem, while James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson promoted American patriotism and unity with their performance.
Obama paid homage to King in his speech, and he mentioned some of the American people’s greatest feats of equity activism and protest as major turning points in realizing the King’s dream.
“We the people declare today that the most evident of truth 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,” Obama said.
Although Obama asserted that the nation is in a better position domestically and internationally than it was four years ago—he lauded the end of a “decade of war” and the beginning of an economic recovery—he warned that only through unity could further advancement be realized. He struck a more reflective tenor than he did in his 2009 inaugural address, highlighting not only the nation’s immediate concerns, but deeper social and gender issues that he saw dividing the nation.
“My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together,” he said. “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.... America’s possibilities are limitless.”
The call for unity was an attempt not only to reign in the growing partisan split, but also to encourage greater collaboration in technological development and education—training teachers and improving math and science curricula.
But to move the nation forward, politicians must work across the aisle, Obama added.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as a reasoned debate,” he said.
Obama also reaffirmed his commitment to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, challenging critics who claim that such welfare programs weaken the country.
“They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great,” he said.
A strong middle class is also important in revitalizing the nation’s economy and future, Obama said—one supported by a reformed school system, tax code and government. The theme of unity and collaboration similarly transcended generational divides when the president proclaimed that the nation need not choose between its past and the future.
“We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” he said.
The inauguration was not without its dissenters. Amid Obama’s droves of supporters stood protesters who took the opportunity to criticize some of the president’s policies. One individual wielding a sign opposing abortion and Planned Parenthood climbed high atop a tree, and remained in his lofted seat chanting “Stop abortion!” and waving his sign throughout the ceremony despite multiple attempts by security and police to force him down.
When Evers-Williams proclaimed, “In Jesus’ name and in the name of all who are holy and right, we pray,” at her invocation’s conclusion, the protester replied with shouts of “What about the babies!” He continued to loudly protest throughout the entire event.
After the ceremony, the presidential parade was opposed by a small counter-parade led by anarchists donning signs that read “Don’t vote, organize.”
As government officials past and present filed onto the stage during the inaugural procession, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton emerged onto the Capitol Building amidst enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. Obama’s immediate predecessor, former president George W. Bush, was absent from the proceedings.
The 57th inaugural ceremony came to a close just before one p.m., aiming to stir optimism to those in the crowd looking to the future as they filed away from the Capitol.
“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,” the president said.