WASHINGTON Barack Hussein Obama launched his second term as the nation's 44th president Monday, urging an increasingly divided nation to move past polarizing debates and live up to its founding ideals by uniting to solve the country's problems.
"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," he said on a crisp, sun-filled afternoon. "My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together."
His 18-minute inaugural address delivered in front of hundreds of thousands of people and televised to millions across the globe offered a clear agenda for his second term, marshaling the federal government to protect the rights of gays and lesbians, combat climate change, provide opportunities for illegal immigrants, and help the downtrodden and middle class get a better foothold in a changing and still fragile economy.
A sea of spectators packed the National Mall to watch Obama, 51, sworn into office a few minutes before noon on the west side of the U.S. Capitol the first Democrat in seven decades to twice win a majority of the popular vote.
First lady Michelle Obama and daughters, Sasha, 11, and Malia, 14, looked on, as did former Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The two living Republican former presidents didn't attend, the ailing George H.W. Bush and son George W. Bush.
"O-ba-ma!" the crowd chanted. "O-ba-ma!" Noticeably grayer than when he first took office, Obama had officially started his second term 24 hours earlier, after a brief private ceremony at the White House. Monday's proceedings followed the tradition of delaying the public inauguration a day when the official date prescribed by the Constitution falls on a Sunday.
The nation's 57th inauguration consisted of five days of patriotic parades and fancy balls, solemn prayers and countless receptions for donors and supporters.
"At what place would you wanna be on Inauguration Day?" asked Camille Page of Corona, in Southern California. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will be proud to tell my grandchildren about it."
Monday's events were jubilant, though they didn't have the same level of excitement as four years ago when a young senator promising hope and change became the nation's first black president. There were no official estimates of the audience Monday. Inaugural organizers said they believed 1 million attended, though they did not explain their estimate. Regardless, it was far short of the 1.8 million who attended in 2009 while still an above- average audience for a second-term inauguration.
"Last time there was a little bit more excitement. It was brand-new," Kerry Kelty of Pittsburgh said of Obama's first inauguration. "I don't think people are disappointed, but reality hit."
After a bitter election and constant clashes on Capitol Hill, Obama used his inaugural address to encourage those with differing views to work together to accomplish something, even if it's not everything.
"For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay," he said. "We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," the president said. "We must act; we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect."
In his second term, Obama faces a polarized political climate. He must address fiscal issues tax revisions and spending cuts and pressing international obligations: stopping Iran's nuclear program, navigating an end to the war in Afghanistan and avoiding tensions with China over the administration's "pivot" to Asia. In the weeks since he defeated Republican Mitt Romney, he's already battled with Republicans in Congress over tax increases and spending reductions.
Outlining the nation he envisions, he reiterated calls he sounded in the campaign for the federal government to do more to improve the situation of the nation's poor and middle-class citizens.
"We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," he said. "We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class."
Republicans, who joined Obama at the White House in the morning for coffee and later at the Capitol for lunch, expressed hope that the two sides could work together on fiscal issues.
"The president's second term represents a fresh start when it comes to dealing with the great challenges of our day; particularly, the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "Republicans are eager to work with the president on achieving this common goal, and we firmly believe that divided government provides the perfect opportunity to do so. Together, there is much we can achieve."
The Obamas and Bidens started their day with a prayer service at St. John's Episcopal Church a few blocks from the White House, where every president since James Madison has worshipped.
On a day the nation honors Martin Luther King Jr., Obama placed his hand on two Bibles King's traveling Bible and the burgundy velvet-covered Lincoln Bible. Obama also had used the Lincoln Bible four years ago, the first to do so since it was used by Abraham Lincoln himself.
Michelle Obama smiled broadly, while even members of Congress snapped photos with their phones.
"Congratulations, Mr. President," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who administered the oath, said just before a 21-gun salute boomed.
Singers Beyoncé, James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson performed. Richard Blanco, the youngest-ever inaugural poet and first Latino or openly gay person to recite a poem at the swearing-in ceremony, read his "One Today." Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered the invocation.
Carter said the ceremony showed "unprecedented diversity from the speeches to the prayers to the singers. It showed a spirit of anticipation for the next four years."
Minutes before Obama's oath, Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latino and fourth female judge to administer the oath.
Afterward, Obama and Biden headed to the Capitol's Statuary Hall to dine on steamed lobster and hickory grilled bison at a luncheon attended by 200, including Supreme Court justices and congressional leaders, sitting at tables adorned with bright orange flowers. Obama was presented with a custom hand-cut crystal Lenox vase with an etching of the White House. The tradition of the luncheon dates to President William McKinley in 1897.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, presented Obama and Biden with the flags that flew over the Capitol. "To you gentlemen, I say congratulations and Godspeed," he said.
Later, the Obamas led an inaugural parade featuring eight official floats, 59 groups, 9,000 people, 1,500 service members and 200 animals the 1.7 miles from the Capitol up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. They sat in a reviewing stand adorned with bulletproof glass and the presidential seal in front of the White House. Most of the onlookers waved American flags and chanted "four more years," but a handful of protesters held "God hates Obama" signs.
In the evening, the president and first lady attended two official inaugural balls, one for members of the military and another for the public.
The president danced with his wife, wearing a custom Jason Wu ruby colored chiffon and velvet gown, to "Let's Stay Together" sung by Jennifer Hudson.
At the Commander in Chief's Ball, Obama expressed "the extraordinary gratitude not just of me as your commander in chief but the thanks of all the American people." He also spoke via video to members of the military on the ground in Afghanistan.
"Every single day we're thinking of you," he said.