Declaring that "our journey is not complete," President Barack Obama began his second term Monday by calling for an end to the politics of absolutism and division and an emphasis on compromise and finding common ground.
"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics," or regard "name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama declared.
He added: "Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, are constants in our character. But we have always understood that when times change so must we; that fidelity to our founders' principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms requires collective action."
Obama emphasized his commitment to using government to solve society's ills and to lift those who need help, sounding a note of defiance to conservatives who have labeled him a big-spending liberal or a socialist. "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," the president said, standing on the west front of the U.S. Capitol and facing the vast panorama of hundreds of thousands of Americans who jammed the National Mall. "The commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great."
In calling for national reconciliation, he invoked the memories of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, and Abraham Lincoln, the iconic president who preserved the Union, as two of his heroes.
In a YouTube video released just prior to his public inauguration, Obama, the nation's first African-American president, said, "For me to have the opportunity to be sworn in using the Bibles of these two men that I admire so deeply, on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, is I think fitting because their actions, the movements they represent, are the only reason it's possible for me to be inaugurated." Monday also marked the federal holiday honoring King's birthday.
Obama actually had been formally sworn in on Sunday, the constitutionally prescribed date for taking the oath of office, in a subdued and small event at the White House. Monday was the day for public festivities.
In delivering his inaugural address, Obama, 51, was relatively somber and reflective.
His serious mood reflected the fact that the public is divided and anxious. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 52 percent approve of Obama's job performance, a tepid rating which is basically the same as a month ago. Forty-three percent say they are optimistic about the next four years, but 35 percent are pessimistic and 22 percent have a mixed opinion. Only 50 percent of Americans say they are thrilled or happy about Obama's second inauguration, compared with 68 percent who felt that way four years ago, according to a CNN/ORC survey.
Yet in contrast with his adversaries, there is also some good news for Obama. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that 61 percent of Americans view him as a strong leader, and 53 percent say they are optimistic about the policies he is expected to pursue in his second term, while only 19 percent give Congress a favorable approval rating.
Obama tells aides that he is well aware of the problems that some presidents have experienced in their second terms because of over-reaching or letting hubris take over. Historian Robert Dallek says he doesn't agree with the idea that there is a "second term curse," but says they can be tough. "The mystique and the magic and the halo, whatever you want to call it, is diminished," Dallek told me. "The excitement always comes at the start of a first term and it can't be replicated."
Obama's problem is exacerbated because majority Republicans in the House of Representatives show every indication of trying to block him at nearly every major turn, including his proposals to control gun violence and his goal of winning approval for tax increases to help reduce the deficit. Obama also is likely to find strong resistance to his initiatives to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and to control climate change. "The opposition party is unbending," Dallek says.
And there were signs that the excitement and energy that Obama inspired four years ago have substantially diminished. Authorities estimated that there were fewer than 1 million people at the ceremony compared with 1.8 million in Jan. 2009 when Obama was still a fresh face who inspired hope and raised the possibility of change. But over the past four years, he has run into the realities of partisanship and stalemate in Washington, and much of his agenda has been stymied.
Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan, told me that one of Obama's objectives now—not only in his inauguration speech but in his State of the Union address next month and beyond—should be "to talk about the unfinished business of America and his unfinished business of transforming Washington" into a more civil and pragmatic place.
Among Obama's objectives in his second term, his advisers say, is to reduce deficit spending, overhaul the immigration laws, cut America's reliance on fossil fuels from abroad, lessen climate change, and curb gun violence.
"He needs to convince the American people that he wants to get things done," Duberstein says, "and that the American tradition of compromise is a noble one."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.