WASHINGTON, January 21 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama took the oath of office for his second term before several hundred thousand people at his public inauguration ceremony here Monday and called on Americans to reject divisiveness and political rancor in order to tackle pressing problems like inequality, social welfare and climate change.
“For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay,” Obama told an estimated crowd of between 600,000 and 800,000 who packed the National Mall in Washington for the 57th US presidential inaugural ceremony.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama added. “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
In his speech Monday, Obama touched on many of the issues central to his presidential campaign last year, which ended with his victory in the Nov. 6 election over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
But his remarks also alluded to or addressed outright some of the potential looming political battles of his second term, including a White House push to enact stricter gun control laws—in the face of fierce opposition from the gun lobby—following a massacre last month by a lone gunman at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm,” Obama said.
The American president also spoke of the urgent need to address climate change, an issue that he put largely on the back burner during his campaign to the dismay of many of his supporters.
The failure to act on the issue “would betray our children and future generation,” 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,” he said. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”
Obama’s political opponents have accused his administration of cronyism when choosing renewable energy projects to support and that government backing of some initiatives at the expense of others is at odds with the nation’s free-market principles.
Obama made a brief detour into foreign policy as well, saying the United States would “support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East” because its interest and conscience compels it “to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
The comments come as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces from war-torn Afghanistan by the end of next year, and as the White House wrestles with the tumultuous aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings and the raging civil war in Syria.
US efforts to “support democracy” in Russia have also consistently rankled the Kremlin since Russian President Vladimir Putin rose to power more than a decade ago. Most recently, Washington imposed sanctions on Russian officials it deems complicit in human rights abuses, prompting Moscow to bar US citizens from adoption Russian children.
While Obama on Monday addressed many of the political issues that have polarized the United States—including wealth distribution, immigration, and gay rights—his speech also drew on loftier themes, like liberty and equality, cited in the nation’s founding documents.
“That is our generation’s task: to make these words, these rights, these values—of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness—real for every American,” he said.
Monday’s event marked the culmination of two days of celebrations in America’s capital, where the nation’s political and business elite, celebrities and thousands of others frolicked over the weekend at red-carpet events and inaugural balls.
Obama’s swearing-in Monday was ceremonial. He was officially inaugurated in a small, private ceremony Sunday in line with the US Constitution, which requires the president to formally take office on January 20.
US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts officiated both Sunday’s swearing-in and Monday’s ceremony, at which Obama used two bibles: the one used by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th US president and a hero of Obama’s, during his first inaugural address; and one belonging to slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Monday’s ceremony fell on the national holiday dedicated to King, who was assassinated in 1968 and who delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” an iconic moment in the American civil rights movement, 50 years ago at the National Mall.
Obama referenced King’s speech in his inaugural address Monday, describing the idea that “all of us are created equal” as a “star that guides us still.”
“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.
Obama’s call for inclusion and equality extended to the gay community as well, with the president reaffirming his support for same-sex marriage—a position he expressed publically for the first time last year.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said.
In his speech, Obama also likened the 1969 gay rights riots in New York City—known as the Stonewall riots after the name of a gay bar where the unrest started—to seminal moments in other prominent civil rights movements in American history.
Obama delivered his speech before an overwhelmingly supportive crowd at the National Mall, with people waving American flags, chanting his name and holding cameras and cell phones aloft to get a clear photo of the president.
The streets of Washington were also teeming with Obama supporters, though there were pockets of dissent on the parade route used by the American president’s motorcade to travel to the event’s epicenter.
One group, in particular, held up signs along the route suggesting they were less than happy about the reelected president and his position on gay rights.
“God Hates Fags,” one sign read, using a defamatory term for homosexuals.
“God Hates Obama,” another sign read.
Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter attended Monday’s ceremony. The other two living former presidents—George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush—were absent.
The elder Bush, 88, is recovering after suffering several recent illnesses. The younger Bush, Obama’s immediate predecessor in the White House, did not provide a public explanation for his absence.
Popular musical artists participated in Monday’s ceremony, including performances by American folk singer James Taylor and pop singers Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce.
Updated with additional comments from President Obama at the inauguration ceremony.