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President Barack Obama's inaugural tone aggressive as he calls for unity, change

WASHINGTON — Summoning the nation's sense of unity as he stood before its symbol of partisan gridlock, Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term as president Monday, using the moment to outline an ambitious agenda from climate change to immigration and equality for gays.

"Our journey is not complete," Obama, 51, said over and over on a brisk, overcast day that drew up to 1 million people, about half the crowd of the last inaugural.

The energy, by extension, was also subdued but the day carried striking symbolism: the first black president claiming another four years on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In 2009, Obama stood at the edge of economic calamity; today he enjoys the tailwinds of a slow but measurable recovery. His speech Monday attempted to seize the momentum of an election he felt affirmed his direction. Over 19 minutes, Obama left clear he plans a more aggressive game and will not shy from his party's ideology.

"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," Obama said. "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together."

The call for unity, however, was set against the decidedly liberal outlook. Obama nodded to personal responsibility but claimed a role for a strong federal government, from regulation to safety net programs, that recognizes "our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

He said "our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law." He rebuked Republican changes to voting laws, implicitly referring to Florida, where people waited for hours to cast a ballot in November. And he emphasized peace over war.

"We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law," Obama said. "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear."

Obama defended Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — "These things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us" — and seemed to fire a final salvo at campaign rival Mitt Romney.

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

On climate change, he 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 mention of climate change surprised Ellen Blackler, 50, of Washington. "I was surprised he gave the environment such emphasis because he hasn't in the past," she said. "I'm happy, and I'm optimistic."

Obama also invoked the debate over gun control, mentioning the recent school shootings in Newtown, Conn., as a call to ensure all children are safe.

But with the rest of his ideas, he avoided delving into specifics.

"The president sought to link the agenda of contemporary liberalism to American political tradition and the principles of the American founding," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "His linkage of Stonewall to Selma and Seneca Falls signaled endorsement of the latest initiatives of social liberalism. Overall, about 80 to 90 percent of the speech was a repetition of his 2008 agenda. He clearly feels that is adequate for 2013."

• • •

Obama was sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts at 11:50 a.m., his hand on two Bibles, one used by King and the other by Abraham Lincoln. He and Roberts recited their lines carefully, unlike four years ago when words were flubbed, requiring a do-over the following day.

Still, Monday was a repeat as well. The Constitution requires the oath to be taken on Jan. 20, so Obama did in a small ceremony at the White House on Sunday. Monday's oath was ceremonial but carried the sweep and pageantry Americans have come to expect.

James Taylor strummed a guitar and sang America The Beautiful. Beyonce belted out the national anthem. Tears filled the eyes of spectators as Richard Blanco, the gay son of Cuban immigrants who was raised in Miami, delivered an elegant poem called One Today.

Thank the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report for the boss on time, stitching another wound or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

Hundreds of thousands of spectators spread from the west front of the Capitol down the National Mall, a sea of American flags waving at once. Street vendors sold Obama posters, hats and T-shirts, some which pridefully marked the inaugural coinciding with the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.

One man's handmade sign read: "Dr. King is smiling today."

• • •

The bipartisan tone Obama tried to strike harkened back to when he first took office. It never materialized. Intense battles with Republicans over his economic policies and health care left Washington even more polarized.

The sentiment rang true Monday as well, the crowd booing when Rep. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, made his way from the Capitol to join other lawmakers in the audience. An anti-abortion protester climbed a pine tree on the Capitol grounds and throughout the ceremony shouted that Obama was a "baby killer."

Obama, as he did for the past two years, will face a divided Congress and he confronted House Republicans who have stymied his agenda.

"Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time," Obama said. "For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay.

"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama's second term represents a "fresh start" to address "the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt.

"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," McConnell said

Florida state Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said he remained optimistic Republicans will follow that through.

"The wind is at the president's back and for Congress just to challenge the president and not do anything will have a negative impact for them in the midterm election and affect a lot of governor's races," Williams said.

Obama does not have a lot of time to move on his agenda — his power will begin to wane after the first year — and faces fresh worries, including growing unrest in North Africa, continued strife in the Middle East and chillier relations with Russia. The economy and big differences with Republicans on how to tackle the debt will also complicate his agenda.

But Monday, Obama once again put hope on display.

"Let us, each of us, now embrace with solemn duty and awesome joy what is our lasting birthright," he concluded. "With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom."

Times staff writer Louis Jacobson contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at Contact Adam C. Smith at

President Barack Obama's inaugural tone aggressive as he calls for unity, change 01/21/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 12:38pm]
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