President Barack Obama called on Americans to take action to reverse climate change, build infrastructure and train the next generation of leaders during an inaugural address devoted to the potential of citizens to drive their government.
"You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course," Obama said from a platform on the west front of the Capitol Building. "You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time - not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."
Obama sought to tie that agenda to the principles embedded in American democracy, using a refrain -- "We, the people" -- from the preamble to the Constitution to emphasize his points.
"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; 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, referring to Martin Luther King Jr., whose Bible he used for the ceremonial swearing-in and whose birthday was observed by the federal government on Monday.
"It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began. 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 - for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," he continued. "Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. 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."
More than even most inaugurations, full of pomp and pageantry as they are, Monday's swearing-in was purely ceremonial: Obama and Vice President Joe Biden officially began their second terms on Sunday, the date mandated by the Constitution, in separate ceremonies in Washington.
Obama appeared to savor his second and final inauguration Monday, reminiscing about the Capitol Building in which he once worked as a senator and smiling broadly as the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir belted out the Battle Hymn of the Republic from a Capitol terrace above and behind him.
"I miss this place," Obama said as he passed through the Capitol to take his seat on the platform where he and Vice President Joe Biden were to take ceremonial oaths of office. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor administered the oath to Biden about 11:45 a.m., giving way to James Taylor, who delivered a rendition of "America the Beautiful." Obama took the Oath of Office just before noon.
Everyday Americans and celebrities alike gathered at the center of American democracy for the inauguration, clustering in the January chill to witness the moment.
Inside the Capitol, a who's-who of the political, military, entertainment and sports industries were spotted arriving early: Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, singer John Legend, Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Aaron among them. "Gonna be a good day," said Aaron, who was in the Capitol with his wife.
The Obama family started its morning with a service at St. John's, the small church across Lafayette Square from the White House that has long been a place of worship for presidents. When they arrive on the west front of the Capitol and look out across the mall, they will see far fewer people than they did four years ago, when Obama was sworn in as the nation's first black president. There were 1.8 million people at that inauguration, though Washington authorities are predicting fewer this year.
Obama's second inauguration comes at a time of transition for a nation that is ending two wars, slashing spending for domestic programs and debating how best to pump up the economy.
His first term brought historic achievements: An overhaul of the health care system, new laws regulating Wall Street and big business, and the killing of Osama bin Laden. But Obama and Congress racked up another $6 trillion in debt over four years, and they failed, despite two years of trying, to strike a grand bargain that would brighten the nation's fiscal picture.
In November, voters picked Obama to lead the country for another four years and today he'll have the chance to frame a second term that begins, as the first term ended, with a Republican-led House and all the challenges of a divided government.
"This time we have some challenges ahead. We've made some real progress and we're really at a crossroads," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. "I think the members of Congress have a choice of whether we're going to engage in my way or the highway politics or whether we're going to make a commitment to work together. I know Democrats are committed to working together to get the economy turned around."
Unlike four years ago, this time she brought a blanket.
"Experience counts," she joked.
Part of Obama's legacy will rest on his ability to find that common ground with a Republican Party in Congress that has sought confrontation with him at every turn -- at times to the detriment of its own members. As revelers began to arrive at the National Mall, some were just happy to see the president re-elected. Others brought with them expectations for his second term: an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, new gun-control measures to prevent tragedies like the massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month, and an even greater tilt of taxation toward the nation's wealthiest families.
"I think he's finally learned how to work around an obstinate Congress, so I do think he's going to get immigration and gun control done," said Kim Ellis, 52, of Raleigh, N.C. "Last term was clean up and this term is moving those things through. He's been a great president he just had a Congress that did everything they could to ruin the country for political gain. I couldn't believe it. I have faith he's going to be able to get those things through. He's much more direct now as opposed to being a peacemaker."
Some of those same expectations are held by the Democratic officials who will be seated near Obama on the platform constructed for his swearing-in ceremony. Former presidents, governors, members of Congress and officials who have been selected for Obama's second-term Cabinet began arriving at 9 a.m. Technically, the president was sworn in on Sunday -- the Constitution mandates the Jan. 20 date -- by Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, who was sworn in Sunday by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, are slated to be seated at the west front of the Capitol around 11:20 a.m.
For some Obama supporters, this swearing-in ceremony is even sweeter than the first. While Obama made history four years ago by becoming the first black president, his second election was a powerful validation.
"What may have had a sense of an insurgent victory four years ago now has more of a national consensus flavor," Gregg Carr, chair of Afro-American Studies at Howard University said in an interview with POLITICO. "With the first inauguration there was almost a sense that ... we did it against improbable odds, but now it's the norm of sorts."
The confluence of the federal holiday marking Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Obama's second inauguration is fitting, say leaders in the black community. Obama, who has increasingly embraced his own connection to King over the years, will place his hand on a Bible once owned by King when he takes the Oath of Office. That Bible will sit atop one owned by Abraham Lincoln, the president Obama most admires.
The list of celebrity performers for the inauguration included James Taylor and pop icons Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce Knowles. The inaugural parade was scheduled to start about 2:35 p.m. and last no more than three hours.
The smaller crowd didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of those who traveled to the nation's capital.
Jeri Harris, 63, came back for Obama's second inauguration. It still "feels like a big deal," she said. "The crowds are less large, things are marked a little better, and it's a lot less cold."
-- Kate Nocera, Ginger Gibson and John Bresnahan contributed to this story
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