President Obama urges unity for common good

Calls for action on climate, safety net, gay rights

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, greeted crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington Monday.
President Obama and his wife, Michelle, greeted crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington Monday.

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday used his second inaugural address to urge bipartisan cooperation in enacting a notably activist agenda on issues ranging from economic disparity to gay rights to climate change.

“Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people,” Obama told an estimated one million revelers gathered on the National Mall on a sunny, brisk morning to hear him repeat the oath of office.

The dichotomy of Obama’s speech, with its calls for cooperation between the parties and its tilt toward traditional Democratic priorities, marked the entry point for his second term. The president repeatedly made clear he will fight for a strong role for the federal government in the face of opposition from Republicans who want to reduce its role in addressing the nation’s ills.


Speaking on the federal holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s first black president returned several times to the theme that the country from its founding has embarked on “a never-ending journey” to advance the rights and opportunities of the less fortunate and disenfranchised.

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At times the speech sounded like an American history lesson, but one designed to justify the direction Obama wants to lead the country — and a stark riposte to the Republican position that the government must retrench in favor of individualism.

“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob,” Obama said in a 20-minute address appealing to Americans to work together for the common good.

He made it clear that on some things he would not compromise.

For example, he proclaimed his intent to protect a series of social programs — including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — and took a swipe at those Republicans who have said the social safety net breeds dependency.


“These things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” Obama said. And in what some interpreted as a rebuff to the rhetoric of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the failed Republican presidential nominee, Obama continued: “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”

Romney was roundly criticized for off-the-cuff remarks in which he said 47 percent of Americans did not pay taxes and relied on the government to support them.

Obama’s appeal for inclusiveness defined the speech.

In a historic moment that brought cheers from the crowd, Obama equated the fight for equality by gays to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and efforts to secure women the right to vote a century ago.

“It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began,” Obama said. “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”


In the same sentence that he referenced civil rights struggles, he noted a turning point in the fight for gay rights: the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar raided by police in 1969.

“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. . . . ”

The call surprised some observers.

“If, as a political scientist, you had told me the inauguration of 2013 would have had such clear references to rights for gays, I would have been astonished,” said Linda Fowler, professor of government at Dartmouth College.

In another signal of his second-term priorities, Obama urged action on climate change, an issue likely to engender the kind of deep partisan resistance it did in 2009, when legislative proposals to curb carbon emissions failed in Congress.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” Obama said in urging America to lead the search for renewable energy.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” he continued. “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our croplands, and snow-capped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.”

Obama, whose first term saw the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, pledged to defend American security after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in a nod to his apparent intent to heighten the role of forceful diplomacy, Obama declared that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”

Unlike four years ago, when a darkening economic cloud hung over the festivities and the stock market dropped by 4 percent on Inauguration Day, there are signs that the economy is improving. In his speech, Obama mentioned the word “economy” only once, and “jobs” twice, and instead diverted his attention to broader themes.

The driving theme of the speech could be shown in the choice of words he made, using “our” 79 times, “we” 62 times, “us” 18 times, and “together” seven times. Obama only used the word “I” two times in his 2,096-word speech.

Despite the political fault lines accentuated by the speech, GOP leaders for the most part gave Obama his moment and pledged to try to work with him.

The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who failed in his much-publicized goal of making Obama a one-term president, wished the president well in “fulfillment of his duty to lead the US at home and abroad over the next four years.”

“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,” McConnell said. “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.”

In remarks at the traditional Inaugural Luncheon in the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican of Ohio, described the day as an opportunity to “renew the old appeal to better angels.”

But others chose not to attend. Romney was not there, making him the first losing candidate not to be on hand since 1989, when Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts did not attend. However, Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee and chairman of the House Budget Committee, did attend.

As Obama was sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., he placed his left hand on a Bible belonging to Abraham Lincoln and another to King. It was a ceremonial repeat of the formal act on Sunday at the White House. The Constitution requires that presidents begin their terms on Jan. 20, so when that date falls on a Sunday — as it did six times previously — the more elaborate public inauguration is held the next day.

The inauguration also included Beyonce singing the National Anthem, Kelly Clarkson singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” and James Taylor singing “America the Beautiful.”

Bryan Bender can be reached at Matt Viser can be reached at Follow them on Twitter @GlobeBender and @mviser.