WASHINGTON—The symbolic start of President Barack Obama’s second term included the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s insistence that work continue on the then half-completed Capitol dome despite the nation being torn apart by the Civil War.
“If people see the Capitol is going on, it is a sign we intend this Union shall go on,” Lincoln said at the time, as recounted during Monday’s inaugural festivities by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Workers completed that dome, a symbol of national unity, 150 years ago this year. And when President Obama stood under its shadow before hundreds of thousands gathered on the National Mall, he tried to emphasize that unity, peppering his 15-minute inaugural speech with numerous mentions of the word “together.”
“My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it, so long as we seize it together,” Obama said.
He also chided the politicians, seated on either side of him during the ceremony, for the bickering that has dominated Washington:
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” the president said.
The crowd, weary over the partisanship and indecisiveness displayed by the nation’s lawmakers, gave Obama’s reprimand a loud cheer.
But, in the midst of his call for unity, the president included hearty endorsements to a series of liberal policies that are sure to dismay the conservative lawmakers he must deal with over the next four years. He pledged to take on climate change and defend the entitlement programs that are bankrupting the government while endorsing bigger government as a solution to the nation’s fiscal woes.
“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 called on “hard choices” to reduce the size of the nation’s deficit, something all Republicans would applaud. But with his very next sentence, Obama suggested that real entitlement reform, the kind that could lead to change in the fiscal crisis, would remain more rhetorical than actual.
“We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” he said.
With the nation’s debt at $16.4 trillion and counting (nearly $6 trillion more than when Obama first took office in 2009) fiscal conservatives were surely hoping for any backing by the president of policies that recognize the need for real spending cuts within the federal government.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama’s second term represents a fresh start for “dealing with the great challenges of our day … the transcendent challenge of unsustainable federal spending and debt.”
But Obama in his speech did not accuse the amount of federal government spending as being a part of any problem. He said that it is not the job of lawmakers today “to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time.” As he repeated the phrase “our time” throughout his speech, the president signaled his belief that more government action is needed in this particular time in the nation’s history.
“We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” Obama said.
Upon finishing his speech, the president lingered a bit around the podium, looking back at a crowd that stretched from the U.S. Capitol all the way to the Washington Monument. TV microphones caught him musing aloud: “I want to take a look, one more time,” he said. “I’m not going to see again.”
This realization that he will not face the voters again may emboldened Obama, despite his rhetoric of unity, to go all in over the next four years when it comes to pushing and defending the liberal policies of his party.
But it was not the president’s policy promotions that rang the loudest on Monday. Instead it was the reaction of the gathered crowd that showed how far the nation has to go.
Lynetria Johnson, 41, traveled from Tulsa, Okla., with her family to attend her first presidential inauguration. She was encouraged by Obama’s talk of unity but dismayed by the actions of those in the crowd. Despite the remembrance on Monday of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Capitol dome in the midst of civil strife, and despite the repeated calls of togetherness in Obama’s speech, the crowd launched into loud boos whenever a Republican appeared on the large screens placed throughout the National Mall.
They booed former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. They jeered at former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
“I thought that was really sad,” Johnson said. “[Obama] talked about us coming together and stopping this political infighting, and everybody was booing. It just shows the state of the country.”