Presidential inauguration: Obama throws down challenge to Republican right

By David Usborne

President's uncompromising inauguration address sets out liberal agenda for second term - gun control, climate change, immigration reform and gay rights - as he also vows to protect America's social safety net.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Photo / AP

His left hand barely removed from the two Bibles chosen for his ceremonial swearing-in, Barack Obama used his second inaugural address boldly to urge his fellow citizens to make the most of the new hour - the end of two wars and the start of an economic recovery - to honour a shared vision of prosperity, peace and equality.

"My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together," Obama asserted in a speech that echoed the beliefs he campaigned on last year, ranging from protecting the poor and disadvantaged to gay marriage, from healthcare and immigration reform to climate change.

As such, he threw down the gauntlet to Republicans - there will be no backing down from the principles he believes in.

He spoke on a crisp day in Washington before a crowd of about a million on the National Mall that briefly broke into chants of "Obama, Obama" as he rose to speak.

Not dwelling directly on the rancour of his first term, or delving too deeply into policy details for his second, Obama sought to strike a tone of optimism and hope.

"America's possibilities are limitless, for 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," he proclaimed.

The pomp on the West Steps of the Capitol was leavened with a rendition of the Star-spangled Banner by Beyonce, who was accompanied to her seat by her rapper husband, Jay-Z.

Obama took the oath of office using Bibles that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Later, the inaugural festivities turned to the traditional parade down Pennsylvania Ave with the first couple leading and the inaugural balls in the evening.

When Obama was being led off the makeshift platform to return inside the Capitol, he turned and for perhaps half a minute surveyed the ocean of Americans below.

Streaming into the Mall earlier supporters of the re-elected President seemed tempered in their hopes for his second term. "I want civility," offered Peggy Higgins, a Maryland social worker tired of bad blood in Washington. "And I want stricter controls on guns," she added, paraphrasing what she said she had heard comedian Chris Rock say on TV: "Give 'em all the guns they want but charge US$5000 for every bullet."

Obama spoke of the need to protect all Americans from danger including in the "quiet lanes of Newtown", the Connecticut town hit by last month's school shooting. They needed to "know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm", he said.

Obama's address was blunt as he reminded Republicans who was in charge after his dispatch of Mitt Romney in the elections, while at the same time saying that only compromise will make progress in Washington possible.

In a direct swipe at the Republican right flank, including Tea Party members, he intoned: "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate."

Obama's confidence was evident as he touched on divisive issues, such as preserving Medicare even while tackling the deficit. "We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of healthcare and the size of our deficit. But 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."

Programmes like Medicare, Obama said, "do not make us a nation of takers; They free us to take the risks that make this country great."

He said: "Our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

Nor did he shy away from his promises to pursue solutions to threats to global security and climate change, saying: "Failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

How pundits reacted

Obama's second inauguration address was far more idealistic, strident, combative and determined both than his first and than most. If his first term was characterised by compromise, in his second he seems determined to do battle.
Gary Younge, the Guardian

The speech lacked the unifying or transcendent ideas that could help Obama do much more than continue the Washington version of trench warfare during his second term ... This second speech seemed to accept that America is divided ... Obama's plan seemed to be to roll the negativists, rather than try any longer to reason with them.
David Ignatius, the Washington Post

The underlying theme was altogether consistent: it is time for the country's reasonable majority to wrest back the agenda ... It was a more jaded, ostensibly realistic Obama, demanding that divided politics no longer be used as an excuse for inaction and promising to not accept such a cynical status quo.
Sam Stein, the Huffington Post

A lot less gloomy, a little more combative, and much more impatient than four years ago, Obama used his address to urge action on a nation in the grips of inertia.
Roger Simon, Politico

Obama's [speech] was unapologetic in offering an argument for his philosophical commitments and an explanation of the policies that naturally followed. Some will no doubt think (and write) that Obama should have sought more lofty and non-partisan ground. The problem with this critique is that it asks Obama to speak as if the last four years had not happened. It asks him to abandon the arguments he has been making for nearly two years. It asks us to pretend that we do not have a great deal at stake in the large debate over government's role that we have been having over an even longer period.
E.J. Dionne, the Washington Post

The experienced president is a sterner looking man than the somewhat starry-eyed young senator that walked up on the podium four years ago ... But what he's lost in youthful looks he's gained in confidence, not just in the boldness of his speech but in his easy manner up on stage.
Hadley Freeman, the Guardian

It was a clear acknowledgement that he faces an implacable, irrational opposition, together with a forceful defence of progressive values. In fact, Obama has never been this clear before about what he stands for.
Paul Krugman, New York Times

- Independent, AP

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