Forging into the latter half of his historic presidency, Barack Obama urged the nation at his second inauguration Monday to work together on a liberal agenda of America's "limitless possibilities," such as reversing climate change, advancing gay rights and strengthening the social safety net.
On a chilly and overcast Monday, Mr. Obama laid out the broad themes for his second term, in which he is winding down the war in Afghanistan and is renewing his push for programs to help the middle class. While the audience on the Mall was noticeably smaller than four years ago, his speech was a robust defense of his big-spending first term and a road map to his next set of priorities, on issues such as gun control and immigration reform.
"My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together," Mr. Obama said in a relatively brief inaugural address that lasted less than 20 minutes. "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity."
Mr. Obama began the day by commenting on his Twitter account while attending a church service that he was "honored and grateful that we have a chance to finish what we started."
"Our work begins today. Let's go. -bo," he tweeted.
Pomp and pageantry
The ceremony at the Capitol was a flag-draped, celebrity-studded celebration of democracy with scant constitutional significance. Mr. Obama was officially sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Sunday, the date mandated by the Constitution, in a private ceremony at the White House. But as with President Reagan's second inauguration in 1985, which also fell on a Sunday, the public event and related pageantries were saved for Monday.
The oath was administered again by Chief Justice Roberts, and this time Mr. Obama stumbled a bit as he pronounced "United States." Four years ago, the chief justice got the words in the wrong sequence, so they repeated the oath a day later at the White House.
The crowd, estimated at up to 800,000, was less than half the size of Mr. Obama's first inauguration in 2009, when about 1.8 million people jammed the Mall to witness the historic occasion of the nation's first black president taking the oath of office.
But the enthusiasm of Mr. Obama's supporters was fully on display Monday across the Mall and at the Capitol, with people sporting ubiquitous Obama jackets and shirts as they navigated heavy security that left most of the monumental capital closed to vehicles. Jumbo TV screens positioned along the Mall gave the throngs that stretched beyond the Washington Monument a view of the platform.
Perhaps the most surprising passage of Mr. Obama's speech was his emphasis on the need to address climate change, an initiative that he ignored in his re-election campaign after failing in his first term to advance a "cap and trade" plan for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. The president used the example of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated portions of the East Coast in late October, to revive his call to combat climate change.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Mr. Obama said. "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. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it."
The president, faced with an imminent fight in Congress over cutting spending and limiting the nation's borrowing, focused almost exclusively on his plans to fight for domestic social programs.
"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," Mr. Obama said. "The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Republicans, while wishing Mr. Obama well, signaled even on the day of ceremony that they will renew the battle over deficit reduction quickly.
"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, Kentucky Republican. "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."
Among the dignitaries on the platform for the inauguration were former Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who was accompanied by his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Absent were the nation's living Republican former presidents — George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, who is recovering from a lengthy illness.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, reminded the crowd that George Washington once said that the peaceful transfer of power — or reaffirmation, in Mr. Obama's case — was the most important of the nation's founding principles.
"There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection," Mr. Alexander said. "This is a moment when millions stop and watch. It is a moment that is our most conspicuous and enduring symbol of the American democracy."
By coincidence, Mr. Obama's swearing-in fell on the official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Mr. Obama used King's Bible as he was sworn in.
The president chose a civil rights theme for the country's 57th inauguration. Participants included Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, to deliver the invocation — the first layperson to do so. She spoke of "the vision of those who came before us and dreamed of this day."
"They are a great cloud of witnesses, unseen by the naked eye but all around us, thankful that their living was not in vain," she said.
But Mr. Obama's links to the entertainment world were prominent in the ceremony as well. Pop diva Beyonce, a big Obama fundraiser, sang the national anthem, and James Taylor performed a verse of "America the Beautiful."
In the crowd, Jabari Reeves of San Francisco said he brought his two young daughters to Washington so they could experience a history lesson firsthand.
"Just being African-American," he said. "Showing our children that they can be anything they want to be."
The Rev. Eugene Williams Sr., an adjunct professor of English at the University of the District of Columbia, said he was "more thrilled this time around."
"When you're 75 years old and have seen some of the things you've seen as an African-American, I don't think you can forget how special an event like this is," he said.
In spite of the exhilaration of the day, Mr. Obama's second term promises to be a more difficult slog in some ways than his first. Although Democrats controlled the House and Senate for half of his first term, he now faces a divided Congress as he tries to persuade lawmakers to approve his second-term initiatives.
As he departed the inaugural platform after the ceremony, Mr. Obama lingered for a minute or so inside an arched doorway to the Capitol, gazing back at the crowd and scanning the tableau as if to imprint the scene on his memory.
Crowds along the inaugural parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest were four and five deep. Along with supporters waving American flags and a group that held red, white and blue signs that spelled out "O-B-A-M-A," there were occasional protest signs, such as "God hates Obama."
The president and his family began the day by attending services with Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his wife, Jill, at St. John's Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Park from the White House. Mr. Obama then hosted a coffee reception for congressional leaders at the executive mansion.
• David Sands contributed to this report.
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