Obama begins new term with calls for unity, equality

WASHINGTON — — President Barack Obama began his second term Monday by calling for an end to the rigid ideologies of modern politics but laying out a broad policy agenda more likely to stoke partisan confrontation than avoid it.

Looking out over hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall, many waving U.S. flags, Obama offered a defense of government safety-net programs while arguing for historic action on climate change, immigration, gay rights and gun control.

The ceremonial inauguration fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and came four years after Obama made history when he became the nation's first black president. Though the crowds were smaller than in 2009, the symbolism and pageantry of the day — along with the president's theme of expanding equality — temporarily muted the political rancor of the past several months.

"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama said from the Capitol in a relatively brief, 18-minute speech. "We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect."

Hundreds of thousands of people streamed into a city on heightened alert for the festivities. Armored vehicles guarded intersections and much of Washington's downtown was closed to traffic. Several Democratic leaders from Maryland, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, were in town for the inauguration events.

Obama formally began his second term Sunday — the day he was constitutionally required to be sworn in. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. administered the oath during a private ceremony at the White House, which was attended by the first family and lasted less than a minute.

Monday's presidential events, including a rare bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders at the White House and a lunch on Capitol Hill, were intended to set the tone for the next term following bruising fights between Obama and Republican lawmakers over the past four years.

Speaking to a crowd bundled up against the gray, chilly weather, Obama outlined an economic vision he said rested on "the broad shoulders of a rising middle class." He also argued that the country is true to its creed only when "a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to a succeed as anybody else."

The president raised a number of issues that did not feature prominently in his first term. He said that the nation's "journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law" — making the first reference to gay rights in an inaugural address.

Obama, who hedged on the issue for years, declared his support for same-sex marriage last May, months before Maryland voters passed a referendum allowing homosexual couples to obtain civil marriage licenses.

He also vowed that Washington "will respond to the threat of climate change," an issue that had all but fallen off his agenda following the inability of a Democratic-led Congress in 2009 to pass legislation to tax carbon emissions.

"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, asserting that the U.S. must lead the world in the development of renewable energy sources.

The speech was cheered by liberal Democrats, who have expressed frustration over what they see as Obama's willingness to seek compromise with the tea party conservatives who took control of the House of Representatives in 2010.

Given recent battles over spending and taxes, Obama's defense of entitlement programs will be parsed for meaning in the coming weeks. He specifically mentioned Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. As Washington tries to work through spiraling budget deficits, the health care programs have proved particularly thorny because they are both popular and increasingly expensive.

"These things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us," Obama said to a roar of applause. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said the message on entitlements was particularly important.

"The president set the right tone," said the Maryland Democrat, who was recently named to lead the Senate Appropriations Committee. "What the president said was, I think, inspirational and was hopefully motivational to the other party."

Republican leaders, many of whom congratulated the president as they sat with him on stage, offered tepid responses to his policy ideas. They pointed out that Obama mentioned the budget deficit — on track to top $1 trillion for the fifth straight year — only in passing.

"The president's second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day, particularly the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who negotiated with the White House this month to delay the most significant impacts of the "fiscal cliff."

"Together," he said, "there is much we can achieve."

A day after the celebrations, black-tie balls and lofty rhetoric, the president and Congress will return once more to the nitty-gritty of budget negotiations. The nation will hit its $16.4 trillion debt ceiling by mid-February and will face $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts unless lawmakers act.

Despite the approaching deadline, Obama's second inaugural seemed to take on a more celebratory feel than the first, which occurred as the economy was still in free fall. Two former Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, shared a stage with singers Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce, both of whom performed. The Mall roared with chants of "O-BAM-A" as the president and his family arrived.

And when it was over, a still-hot microphone and C-SPAN camera caught the president as he turned on his heels to look back at the crowd before retreating into the Capitol.

"I want to take a look one more time," he said as he stared out over the Mall back toward the White House. "I'm not going to see this again."

While pundits say the start of the second Obama administration isn't likely to change Washington, Sen. Ben Cardin said he hopes it will have some small effect when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after a brief recess to begin work on the next fiscal crisis.

How much Obama can achieve in his second term may depend on how — and how quickly — Democrats and Republicans deal with those issues.

"Inaugurations are a beginning," the Maryland Democrat said. "I do hold out hope that we're now at the beginning of a new chapter of politics that will be seized upon by all."

But, Cardin quickly added, "it's not going to be easy."