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‘We Are Made for This Moment’: Obama’s Address Stressed Equality, Fairness

January 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his second inaugural address, delivered on the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama stressed themes of equality and fairness. Jeffrey Brown and Gwen Ifill recap the festivities, the musical celebrations and the other ceremonial traditions kicking off the president's second term.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Washington and the nation were witness again today to the quadrennial pomp and color of a presidential inauguration. It marked the public start to the second Obama administration, and it featured presidential appeals to extend prosperity and full freedoms to all Americans.

As the sun rose over the nation’s capital on this Monday, hundreds of thousands of people began descending upon the National Mall to witness the occasion. Officials estimated 500,000 to 700,000 attendees. That was far fewer than four years ago, when nearly two million turned out.

But today’s crowd gave no hint of diminished enthusiasm for the 44th president after a first term that saw bruising battles over health care, financial reform, deficits and spending and more.

The man they came to see began his day with a morning prayer service at St. John’s Episcopal, near the White House and often called the church of the presidents.

He was joined by first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha , as well as Vice President Biden, his wife, Jill, and members of their family. Afterward at the White House, they hosted a bipartisan group of congressional leaders for coffee and then the president began the drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, all the while lawmakers, other dignitaries and celebrities filled the seats on the west front of the Capitol.

They included former Presidents Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, and Bill Clinton, accompanied by his wife, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Then the formal entrances: The Obama daughters were introduced to the crowd along with their grandmother, Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother. They were followed by Jill Biden and by Mrs. Obama.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the first lady of the United States, Mrs. Michelle Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the vice president, and the president himself greeted by official music and by chants from the crowd.

CROWD: Obama! Obama!

JEFFREY BROWN: Then the ceremonies got under way. Myrlie Evers-Williams, former chair of the NAACP and widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, delivered the invocation.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS, former NAACP chair: We invoke the prayers of our grandmothers, who taught us to pray.

God, make me a blessing. Let their spirit guide us as we claim the spirit of old. There’s something within me that holds the reins. There’s something within me that banishes pain. There’s something within me I cannot explain. But all I know, America, there is something within. There is something within.

JEFFREY BROWN: Perhaps the most rousing moment of the day came from the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir«MD-BO» singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

And then the first oath-taking, as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first of the president’s two appointments to the court, swore in the vice president.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I, Joseph R. Biden Jr., do solemnly swear…

JEFFREY BROWN: The musical moment changed when singer/songwriter James Taylor performed “America the Beautiful” alone on his guitar. After that, Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to the president.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama took the oath with two Bibles. One that he had also used four years ago was used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inaugural in 1861. And with a view towards this King Day holiday, stacked atop Lincoln’s Bible was the traveling Bible of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: So help you God?

BARACK OBAMA: So help me God.

JOHN ROBERTS: Congratulations, Mr. President.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, this was the fourth time the chief justice and president had done this together. In 2009, they had to redo the oath at the White House after Roberts stumbled over some of the words in the public ceremony.

And President Obama was officially sworn in for his second term yesterday in a private ceremony at the White House to meet the constitutional requirement that the oath be taken on January 20.

Today, the president began his second inaugural address with a nod to the country’s founding doctrines.

BARACK OBAMA: each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.

What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: The president made few specific policy pronouncements. Instead, he used his address as a forceful call for all to work together to ensure fairness .

BARACK OBAMA: This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: An economic recovery has begun.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive, diversity and openness, of endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work, when the wages of honest labor will liberate families from the brink of hardship.

We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher.

But while the means will change, our purpose endures. A nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American, that is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.

JEFFREY BROWN: With today’s ceremony falling on Martin Luther King Day, the president reflected on civil rights battles past, and noted the country had still not achieved goals of equality, opportunity and more.

BARACK OBAMA: We the people declare today that the most evident of truth that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began, for our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our work force rather than expelled from our country.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

That is our generation’s task, to make these works, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American.

JEFFREY BROWN: The broad theme for this inaugural was faith in America’s future. The president closed his remarks by looking forward to the expected political battles. He urged both parties to work together for the good of the country, but also called for citizens to hold their leaders to account.

BARACK OBAMA: 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.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: We must act. 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.

My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction.

And we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service. But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream.

My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride. They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope.

You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Let us each of us now embrace with solemn duty, and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. 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.

Thank you.

God bless you.

And may He forever bless these United States of America.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: Following the inaugural address, pop star Kelly Clarkson, the first-time winner of “American Idol,” performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

In another of the day’s first, Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco became the youngest inaugural poet ever and the first Hispanic or openly gay person to recite a poem at the ceremony.

In one passage, Blanco paid tribute to the victims of last month’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

RICHARD BLANCO, poet: All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day — equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever.

GWEN IFILL: The Rev. Luis Leon of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where the first family worshipped this morning, gave the benediction.

REV. LUIS LEON, St. John’s Episcopal Church: We pray for your blessing because, without it, we will see only what the eye can see. But with the blessing of your blessing, we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first-generation immigrant American or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor.

We pray for your blessing, because, without it, we will only see scarcity in the midst of abundance. But, with your blessing, we will recognize the abundance of the gifts of this good land with which you have endowed this nation.

GWEN IFILL: And pop super star Beyonce closed the ceremony with the national anthem, accompanied by the president’s own United States Marine Band, and a poignant moment as the president paused while leaving the inaugural platform to gaze upon the hundreds of thousands of people still gathered behind him on the National Mall.

The pomp and ceremony continued indoors, as the president and vice president headed inside the Capitol to sign the first official paperwork of the new administration, a proclamation for a National Day of Hope and Resolve, and to send on four of President Obama’s Cabinet nominations.

BARACK OBAMA: I am sending a few nominations up, which I know will be dealt with, with great dispatch.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: From there, some of the inaugural attendees, including members of the Cabinet and Congress, attended a traditional luncheon in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were among the attendees. But neither President George W. Bush nor George H.W. Bush were in Washington today.

The president’s arrival was greeted with applause and the lawmakers praised one another in bipartisan toasts and gift exchanges. Speaker of the House John Boehner presented flags to the first families and appealed for renewed political cooperation.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: We gather in the old hall to better hear one another.

GWEN IFILL: Moments later, President Obama echoed that appeal for cooperation.

BARACK OBAMA: I recognize that democracy is not always easy. And I recognize there are profound differences in this room. But I just want to say thank you for your service, and I want to thank your families for their service, because regardless of our political persuasions and perspectives, I know that all of us serve because we believe that we can make America for future generations. And I’m confident that we can act at this moment in a way that makes a difference.

GWEN IFILL: And before they left the building, the group paused to look at the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that sits under the Capitol Rotunda.

Then it was back into the cold for a military review on the steps of the Capitol and the slow drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.

The one-mile parade route was packed with waving and cheering onlookers, some of them peering down from rooftops. The first couple hopped out of their armored car twice to walk part of the route, once halfway down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the second time as the motorcade approached the White House reviewing stand.

At each stop, the Obamas, and then the Bidens, were greeted by screaming and waving crowds. The first family then took their places in a specially constructed viewing box to watch the parade of bands and dancers stream past.

As in 2009, the marching band from Hawaii’s Punahou School was there. President Obama attended the school from 1971 to 1979. The floats included displays from the president’s home state of Hawaii and from Illinois, the state he represented in the U.S. Senate. And for the first family, after a long day of pomp and circumstance, a night of inaugural balls lay ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: And those balls got under way just a short tie ago. This year, the president and first lady are attending two, the commander in chief’s ball and the inaugural ball, both at the Washington Convention Center. A few minutes ago, the president thanked members of the armed services and their families for their sacrifice and service, and then he introduced his wife, Michelle.

BARACK OBAMA: Ladies and gentlemen, my better half and my dance partner, Michelle Obama.

MAN: And now, please welcome Grammy and Academy Award winner, Jennifer Hudson.

JEFFREY BROWN: All eyes were of course on the dress, and there it is, a ruby colored chiffon and velvet dress designed by Jason Wu, which was a bit of a surprise to fashion mavens. Jason Wu designed Michelle Obama’s dress four years ago. There was some thinking it might go to another designer.