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Obama signals intent to fight for legacy of equality, civil rights

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address during swearing-in ceremonies on the West front of the U.S Capitol.


Barack Obama used the pomp and prestige of his final inauguration to take up the civil-rights mantle that many had hoped would embody the first African-American President's initial term in office.

In a capital electric with excitement and rendered unnavigable by security, a beaming Mr. Obama took the ceremonial oath of office on Monday, a day after his official swearing-in for a second term.

In his second inaugural address, he presented himself as a President seeking more to fight to build a legacy than to compromise for the sake of agreement.

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Mr. Obama made equality the driving theme of his speech, a century and a half after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, and 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington. He abandoned a failed first-term experiment in post-partisanship to emphasize familiar Democratic ideals of civil rights and equal opportunity.

With the past four years devoted to overcoming partisan bickering – leaving him scarred and frustrated, the country exhausted and divided – Mr. Obama signalled he has embraced a greater, and perhaps more manageable cause, for the next four years.

Mr. Obama's evoked the 1969 Stonewall riots that gave birth to the gay-rights movement alongside watershed moments in the struggles for women's rights and racial equality.

He became the first president to embrace marriage equality in an inaugural address.

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that still guides us, just as it guided our forbears through Seneca Falls, and Selma and Stonewall," Mr. Obama said on the Capitol steps as an estimated crowd of 600,000 flag-waving spectators watched in a sea of satisfaction that stretched to the Washington Monument.

In repeating the oath delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts, Mr. Obama briefly stumbled over the word "states," but the slip was too minor to dampen spirits or warrant a do-over, as in 2009.

Mr. Obama's nearly 20-minute address, delivered under an overcast sky that cleared for a sun-drenched inaugural parade, offered few echoes of his 2009 speech, when he likened his first election victory to the choice of "hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict."

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In 2009, Mr. Obama proclaimed "an end to the petty grievances" of American politics, On Monday, he seemed resigned to their existence for his second term.

"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," he said. "We must act, knowing that today's victories will be only partial."

Despite the more mild temperature, the 57th inauguration drew about a third of the people who flocked to the capital for Mr. Obama's first swearing-in. Then, about 1.8 million lined The Mall, their jubilation at the inauguration of the first black president tempered by what the then-untested President called the "gathering clouds and raging storms" of the financial crisis.

This time, Mr. Obama's prediction of American renewal was founded on more than hope. Though the economic recovery remains fragile, it is developing deeper roots by the day.

"America's possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands – diversity and openness, an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention," Mr. Obama said. "We are made for this moment."

While conceding the need to cut health-care costs and the deficit, Mr. Obama put Republicans on notice that he intends to protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. In a thinly veiled retort to GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who blasted Mr. Obama's supporters as being dependent on government, the President said the programs that make up the social safety net strengthen Americans collectively.

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"They do not make us a nation of takers," he said. "They free us to take the risks that make this country great."

After all but abandoning climate change in his first term, Mr. Obama also renewed his commitment to tackling global warning during his final four years in office.

"The failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," he insisted. "The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it."

Some Republicans were taken aback by the strident tone of Mr. Obama's speech, expressing surprise at the absence of a conciliatory message given that the President will need GOP co-operation to achieve many of his goals.

"I would have liked to have seen some outreach," Arizona Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama's 2008 rival for the presidency, told The Hill newspaper. "There's [always] been a portion of the [inauguration] speech where [the President says] 'I reach out my hand because we need to work together.' That wasn't in this speech."

After four years of brutal partisanship in Congress, however, it was perhaps only natural for Mr. Obama to return to the themes that inspired his political career in the first place.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More


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