By Amie Parnes - 01/22/13 01:08 AM EST
President Obama on Monday delivered a rallying cry for an active government in his second term, insisting in his inaugural address that individual freedoms could be best preserved through “collective action.”
In a speech heavy on nods to his liberal base, the president emphasized the need to work “together” and called on the nation to change with the times and come up with “new responses to new challenges.”
The speech included calls for action on climate change and — for the first time in an inaugural address — gay rights and same-sex marriage.
Speaking on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Obama drew parallels between the fight for gay marriage and the civil-rights and women’s-suffrage battles of the last two centuries, invoking the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the same breath as the march on Selma, Ala., and the women’s-rights convention of Seneca Falls, N.Y.
“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.
On climate change, he said a failure to act “would betray our children and future generations.”
“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,” Obama said.
One former senior administration official described Obama’s address as emphasizing what he campaigned on in the 2012 election against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the GOP vice presidential candidate, who attended Monday’s address.
It offered a “major nod to the liberal base,” the official noted. “If there was ever any doubt about his lack of support for the base, I think he threw those ideas right out the window.”
Liberals hailed Obama’s address, with some comparing it favorably to his first inaugural address four years ago.
“The president really hit the right issues,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Every part of the speech, he had it just right.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Obama had “boldly” taken on all of the great Democratic Party issues.
“He did not shy away from climate change, from poverty, this time. He was much more fulsome this time in speaking to the issues that animated him to run for office,” a visibly moved Norton said. “Four years ago, it was vaguer in its themes.”
Several Republicans, in contrast, argued Obama could have done more in his address to reach out to their party.
“This is the eighth [inauguration] that I’ve been to and always there’s been a portion of the speech where [the president says], ‘I reach out my hand because we need to work together,’” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the man bested by Obama in the 2008 election. “That wasn’t in this speech.”
Obama did not discuss in detail the specific policy issues expected to dominate his second term. Instead, he made references to immigration reform as well as new gun-control legislation on the heels of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
The fight over government spending and entitlement costs is expected to dominate Washington this year, and Obama spoke of the need to reduce the deficit. But he emphasized that Washington must do so in a way that preserves Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
“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,” he said.
Obama — who was officially sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Sunday — mentioned the word “together” seven times in the 20-minute address.
“[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” the president said.
Obama enters his second term facing a series of challenges, including an economy still recovering from financial crisis and an unemployment rate at the same level as when he took office in 2009.
The president alluded to political division and the difficulty policymakers have had in finding any compromise. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” he said.
Later, at a lunch on Capitol Hill before the congressional leadership, Obama acknowledged, “Democracy is not always easy.” But he added, “I’m confident that we can act in this moment in a way that makes a difference for our children.”
Throughout his inaugural address, Obama struck populist tones, saying that freedom is not reserved “for the lucky, or happiness for the few.” He added later that Americans believe their believe that our “obligations ... are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.”
“We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm,” Obama said.
Obama defended entitlement programs, saying that “these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us.
“They do not make us a nation of takers,” he added. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
— Erik Wasson and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.
— Published at 12:20 p.m. and last updated at 8:08 p.m.