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Washington • President Barack Obama launched his second term Monday with a call for incremental yet meaningful progress toward an America more equal for all, and a step away from the partisan brinkmanship that dominated his first four years in office.
Before a crowd numbered in the hundreds of thousands, the president made a forceful case for gay marriage and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, for less federal debt and more assistance to the poor, and for a government response to climate change and gun violence.
Progress, the president added, is contingent on compromise.
"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama said. "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."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Obama's point was accurate, and the Utah Republican took it as a sign that the president respects principle even that of detractors.
Still, Lee said, the president steered off his own talk of cooperation when he started hammering home some points of his agenda.
"I really like the message at the beginning of the speech; it was very much a unifying, rallying call for all Americans," Lee said. "There were certainly moments later in his speech in which he got off the unifying track."
Lee's Senate colleague, Orrin Hatch, who donned a white Stetson cowboy hat and sat just off to the president's right, said what he got out of the speech was, "Let's work together."
"If he's open [and] just not saying my way or the highway, there's a lot we can do together," Hatch said. "We've had some bad polarization on both sides back here. The Democrats have gone way left and some on the Republican side have gone way right extreme. We've got to find some way to bring people together."
On the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., Obama, the first black president, made his most direct connection to the late civil-rights leader as his words echoed down the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial where King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech five decades prior.
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths 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," Obama said, referring to sites of famous demonstrations for equal rights for women, blacks and gays. "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."
The journey begun by those who fought for fairness is not finished, Obama said, until "our gay brothers and sisters" are treated the same as anyone under the law, until all voters have the same, unhindered access to the polls, until women are paid the same as men in the same jobs and until children are safe from gun violence.
"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, [Conn.] know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm," Obama said.
While Obama's first inauguration drew upwards of 1.8 million people, organizers reportedly said the crowd this time around was around 700,000. But the masses still stretched from the Capitol steps to the Washington Monument, and tens of thousands more stood on the parade route waiting for a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. Many of the attendees huddling together for warmth in temperatures hovering just above freezing.
While not mentioning the day's weather, the president did address something he rarely has addressed since his first few months in office: climate change.
"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," he said, promising a response to the threat.
The president also used his 19-minute address to rebut arguments made by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the general election about the number of Americans reliant on federal assistance and the need to reduce federal spending by scaling back the scope of the social safety net.
"The commitments we make to each other through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," Obama said. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
The president, who took office during the Great Recession, with wars grinding on in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the nation is poised for better times.
"This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience," Obama said. "A decade of war is now ending. An economic recovery has begun. America's possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention."
"My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment," the president declared, "and we will seize it so long as we seize it together."