President Barack Obama urged Americans yesterday to reject political “absolutism” and partisan rancor as he kicked off his second term with a call for national unity, setting a pragmatic tone for the daunting challenges he faces over the next four years.
Obama’s ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol was filled with traditional pomp and pageantry, but it was a scaled-back inauguration compared to the historic start of his presidency in 2009 when he swept into office on a mantle of hope and change as America’s first black president With second-term expectations tempered by lingering economic weakness and the political realities of a divided Washington, Obama acknowledged the difficult road ahead even as he sought to build momentum from his decisive November re-election victory.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama said as he stood in the wintry cold atop a giant makeshift platform on the Capitol steps overlooking the National Mall.
Looking out on a sea of flags, he spoke to a crowd of up to 700,000 people, less than half the record 1.8 million who assembled four years ago.
Obama arrived at his second inauguration on solid footing, with his poll numbers up, Republicans on the defensive and his first-term record boasting accomplishments such as a U.S. healthcare overhaul, ending the war in Iraq and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
But battles are looming over budgets, gun control and immigration, with Republicans ready to oppose him at almost every turn and Obama still seemingly at a loss over how to engage them in deal-making.
A flag-waving, cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands applauded as Vice President Joe Biden took his oath from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then a few minutes later, when Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., administered the oath to the President.
Four years ago, Obama took office with the country in the midst of two wars and the worst economic crisis in more than half a century. His second inauguration arrives with one war over, the other winding down and the economy recovering, but with Washington dominated by a bitter political stalemate that reflects a deep partisan divide in the nation.
The inaugural ceremonies, themselves, highlighted the idea of bipartisanship and continuity of American democracy. Two of Obama’s predecessors, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, were among the dignitaries gathered at the Capitol’s West Front.
So, too, were many of the congressional Republicans who have battled Obama through the past four years. The country’s two living former Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were not present; the elder Bush recently was recently released from a hospital in Houston after a bout with bronchitis.
Supporters speak out
Spencer Gould and his wife, Ardenia, of Chicago, arrived at the Capitol early enough to get seats on the front row of their section, directly center of where the president will take the oath of office.
For about a minute, Gould said, he considered staying at home in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, but quickly realized that he could be no place else but here.
“We have worked on all of his campaigns,” said Gould, 38. “We go back to when people couldn’t pronounce his name. It has been such a great experience to watch him go from someone no one knew to a world leader.”
Four years ago, he said, he wanted to be part of the historical moment. This time, he came to show his support.
His wife, Ardenia, 37, said this time seems more subdued, compared to the electrifying experience of 2008.
“I feel vested in his success,” said Ardenia Gould, who started out working on his senate campaign.
In his next term, she said, she would like to see the president use his power to push his policies through.
She said she supports the president’s push for gun control and she does not want him to back down from that. “Our kids are under siege, so I hope he can do something about gun control,” she said. “That and keeping us from falling off the fiscal cliff are my two biggest concerns.”