President Obama’s appeal for unity in his inaugural address four years ago gave way Monday to a more pointedly aggressive vision of liberalism and social justice, coming from a chief executive who survived his first term’s legislative battles and is determined to make his second term consequential.
Speaking from the grand platform of the Capitol and looking west onto hundreds of thousands of well-wishers spread along the Mall, the 44th president used his re-inauguration to recast the Constitution’s promises for a modern society, describing a nation that has, in many ways, moved past the framers’ limited-government philosophy.
“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers,” Mr. Obama said. “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.”
Sweeping 226 years of constitutional change into an 18-minute speech, Mr. Obama said the challenge for the next four years will be to embrace a collective spirit to advance the nation’s goals.
He repeatedly harkened to the beginning of the Constitution’s preamble, “We the people,” a concept he said has spawned programs such as Social Security and other poverty-fighting measures but now also must push the country to tackle global challenges such as climate change.
It was a striking speech that seemed designed to reclaim the Constitution from the tea party — the limited-government political movement that grew in 2009 and 2010, eventually helping power Republicans to control of the House and to Senate gains in the midterm elections.
Tea party activists, and conservatives in general, have accused Mr. Obama of repeatedly violating the Constitution as the founders wrote it. But Mr. Obama, embracing what has become known as the theory of a “living Constitution,” said the document is aspirational.
“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 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.”
The nation’s first black president — an embodiment of how far the country has come since the days of slavery — said the promise of equality will not be fulfilled “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.”
Giving speeches has been one of Mr. Obama’s strengths, and Monday, with the nation watching, he laid out a vision of social democracy in sharp contrast with the libertarian view that permeates the Republican Party.
Whether it was immigration, equal pay for women or voting rights, the president said the country must tackle mounting fault lines.
The 2,095-word speech, which was hailed by Democrats and Republicans alike as “eloquent,” was different from his longer 2009 address, which focused far more on immediate issues such as an economy in the midst of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Now, even though the unemployment rate is 7.8 percent — exactly what it was that cold January day four years ago — Mr. Obama briefly said the economy is in “recovery” and turned his attention to a broader call for social reform.
Republicans were measured in their evaluation.
“I thought it was aspirational. It gives us something to shoot for,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “I think any differences among ourselves we have on policy, the president gets a pass on his inauguration. This is all about him.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be the chief panel for many of Mr. Obama’s priorities such as gun control and immigration reform, also praised the president.
“I applaud him for his call for unity,” he said, though he added that part of that burden falls on the president. “He is going to have to quit dividing Americans between rich and poor.”
Democrats were enthused by Mr. Obama’s call to action — though Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and one of the chamber’s most liberal members, was asked whether the address was liberal enough for him.
He smiled and said, “It’s always kind of approaching it, never quite meets it.”
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