On an icy gray sky day in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama stepped to the podium for his second inaugural address on Monday (January 21), taking the oath of office on bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and slain civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he made a plea for equal rights and equal opportunity for all Americans.
The crowd of an estimated 600,000-plus hardy, American flag-waving souls who filled the lawn from the Capitol to the Washington Monument were half the nearly 1.8 million who turned out for Obama's 2009 historic first inauguration. But the image was no less inspiring and Obama's address no less stirring.
With the partisan bickering of the election well behind him and his political career in its twilight, Obama's inaugural speech reached for themes of unity and cooperation: making a plea for equal rights for gay Americans, opportunity for young immigrants facing deportation, real action to save our children from the destructive effects of climate change and a vision of a modern economy that will promise jobs for the students who will lead us in the next American century.
"Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution," he opened. "We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
"Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time," he said. "For history tells us that while these truths may be self evident, they've never been self-executing."
Addressing the millions of young voters who helped him reach the White House twice, Obama spoke of the future and the promise of youth.
"Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers ... No single person can train all the math and science teachers we'll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores," he said, speaking to the 60 percent of voters 18-29 who lifted him to victory over Mitt Romney in November. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people."
The ceremonial swearing-in — the official oath was given, as required, before noon on Sunday in a private White House ceremony — was observed by former Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, though not the other two living commanders in chief, George H.W. Bush, 88, who has been ill, and George W. Bush, 88, who has been ill and George W. Bush, who has avoided the public eye since turning over the keys to the White House to Obama four years ago.
In the days leading up to Monday's event, presidential historians noted that second inaugural addresses are rarely memorable and don't tend to focus on specifics. But Obama, considered one of the most eloquent public speakers of his generation, was clearly aiming to provide a bookend to the arc of history he began four years ago, while mostly eschewing the language of hope and change from 2009 in favor of a surprisingly detailed list of major to-do agenda items.
He spoke both of securing the health and safety of those who built this country, as well as those who will take it into the future. Of strengthening the middle class and making sure that even those born into the most dire of circumstances are given the same opportunity to succeed and share the equality available to all Americans.
Obama highlighted the urgency of battling climate change, "knowing that our failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," while calling on doubters to look at the evidence born in raging fires, crippling doubt and devastating storms as proof that our planet's future is in peril.
Repeatedly employing the constitutional language "We, the people" to begin his thoughts, Obama pledged to seek peace instead of war, support global democracy and stand up for individual rights.
And on the national holiday observing the legacy of Dr. King, the nation's first black president invoked the civil rights icon's memory. "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; 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."
In a moment sure to be enshrined in history books, Obama made the strongest inaugural plea ever for gay rights at a time when polls show that 53 percent of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage, a number that climbs to nearly 75 percent among voters under 30.
"It is now our generation's task to carry on what those pioneers began," he said nine months after announcing his support for same-sex marriage. "For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete 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."
The time to act, he said, was now, regardless of the harsh political divisions that have often brought our government to a partisan standstill over the past four years.
"My fellow Americans, the oath I have sworn before you today, like the one recited by others who serve in this Capitol, was an oath to God and country, not party or faction — and we must faithfully execute that pledge during the duration of our service," Obama said. "But the words I spoke today are not so different from the oath that is taken each time a soldier signs up for duty, or an immigrant realizes her dream. My oath is not so different from the pledge we all make to the flag that waves above and that fills our hearts with pride."
"They are the words of citizens, and they represent our greatest hope. You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country's course ... Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom."
MTV News is on the ground in D.C. for Inauguration Weekend bringing you the latest from the presidential events, performances and parties right through the official swearing-in today. And although the election's over, you can still get involved by heading over to serve.mtv.com.