WASHINGTON — In ceremonially marking the beginning of another four years in the White House, President Barack Obama on Monday embraced a progressive agenda centered on equality and opportunity.
Obama went out of his way to mention both gay rights and the need to address climate change in an inaugural address that seemed intended to assert his authority over his political rivals and to define his version of modern liberalism after voters returned him to office for a second term.
“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,” Obama said. “We must act; we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect.”
A crowd estimated at more than 800,000 people assembled on the National Mall in front of the Capitol, eager to witness the start of the president’s second term. Obama, 51, was formally sworn in during a small private ceremony at the White House on Sunday, the date constitutionally mandated for the inauguration.
Following an election dominated by a clash of economic philosophies, Obama used his second inaugural address to renew his demands for a new national focus on the widening gulf between rich and poor. He called it “our generation’s task” to make the values of “life and liberty” real for every American.
“Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life,” he said, perhaps mindful of bruising political fights to come. “It does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way or follow the same precise path to happiness.”
“Progress,” he said, “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.”
The president’s second inaugural speech was more forceful than his first, giving notice that he intends to use his remaining time in office to push for the America he envisions. Drawing a contrast with Mitt Romney’s comment that 47 percent of people rely on government, Obama said the country’s belief in programs like Medicare and Social Security did not sap the country’s spirit and initiative.
“They do not make us a nation of takers,” the president declared. “They free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Security in Washington was tight as Obama, the nation’s first black president, delivered his second inaugural address from the Capitol just before noon Eastern Time. Speaking on the day the nation sets aside to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama took his oath with his hand on two Bibles: one once owned by King and another once owned by Abraham Lincoln.
Obama honored King, recalling the time he proclaimed that “our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
Obama made a point to single out gay Americans, comparing their struggle for equality to the fights that African-Americans have waged. Having offered his support last year for same-sex marriage after years of opposition, Obama used his address to embrace the idea that there should be marriage equality.
“If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said.
He also singled out the issue of climate change, a subject that he raised in his first inaugural address but has struggled to make progress on in the face of fierce opposition in Congress and in countries around the world. In his 2009 speech, he warned about environmental threats to the planet; on Monday, he vowed to confront them.
Obama left the details of his second-term agenda for his State of the Union speech in three weeks. But he hinted at the two major legislative battles he has promised to wage: reform of the immigration system and new laws intended to reduce gun violence.
In a reference to the gun control debate that he has begun in the wake of the school shooting last month in Newtown, Conn., Obama said the country must confront the dangers to America’s children.
“Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm,” he said.
At a luncheon with congressional leaders in the Capitol, Obama sounded more humble, saying anyone who occupies the White House understands that a president’s power is limited by the help he receives from partners in governing.
“The longer you are there the more humble you become, and the more mindful you are that it is beyond your powers individually to move this great country,” Obama said.
Saying there are “profound differences in this room,” the president nonetheless asserted that “I’m confident that we can act in a way at this moment that makes a difference for our children and our children’s children.”
After the ceremonies at the Capitol, the inaugural parade took shape, a reflection of American musicality and diversity that featured military units, bands, floats, the Chinese American Community Center Folk Dance Troupe from Hockessin, Del., and the Isiserettes Drill & Drum Corps from Des Moines.
The crowds were several rows deep along parts of the route, and security was intense. More than a dozen vehicles flanked the president’s limousine as it rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue.
As recent predecessors have, the president emerged from his car and walked several blocks on foot. His wife, Michelle, was with him, and the two held hands while acknowledging the cheers from well-wishers during two separate strolls along the route.
A short time later, accompanied by their children and Vice President Joe Biden and his family, the first couple settled in to view the parade from a reviewing stand built in front of the White House.
A pair of nighttime inaugural balls completed the official proceedings, with a guest list running into the tens of thousands to hear performances by musical stars such as Alicia Keys, Brad Paisley, Katy Perry, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Beyonce sang the national anthem Monday afternoon.
As Obama walked back into the Capitol after his address, he stopped and turned briefly to look back out over the crowd. “I want to take a look, one more time,” he said. “I’m not going to see this again.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News.