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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Presidential inauguration speech

An estimated 800,000 stretched from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument for the 57th Presidential Inauguration Monday, down from roughly 1.8 million in 2009.

Obama addresses nation in second inaugural speech

WASHINGTON, DC — History loomed over Washington on the overcast Monday morning of President Barack Hussein Obama’s second inauguration.

They came from Brooklyn and Alabama, Illinois and Wisconsin, Arizona and around the world to watch America’s first African-American president take his second public oath of office.

“Having an African American president sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wanted to be here to witness that,” said Rex Slate, a Birmingham, Ala., attorney. “As an American from the South, it is very special and I’m proud to be here.”

The weekend’s 800,000 visitors were less than half the number that descended onto Washington in 2009, but for those in attendance, like Dr. Cyril O. Byron, a 92-year-old veteran pilot with the 99th Fighter Squadron and a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, the significance of the moment was no less powerful.

“Seeing all these people here, you wouldn’t think that discrimination and prejudice was going on,” he said from his wheelchair, tucked under a blanket and among a score of Tuskegee Airmen in attendance. “Years ago [white people] wouldn’t want to walk on the same side of the street as us in Tuskegee, Alabama.”

In his 18-minute address that he crafted throughout the week and into the weekend leading up to Monday’s ceremony, Obama, crackling with energy on a morning when many in the crowd couldn’t feel their toes, compared the civil rights movement to the fights for women’s suffrage and gay rights. He followed up allusions to Seneca Falls and the Stonewall riots by voicing support for legal equality for sex relationships, an unprecedented subject in inaugural history.

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he said. “For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

He continued with broad liberal talking points and references rather than the particulars of policy, alluding to voter suppression and immigration reform, followed by a vision of a socially responsible society where children from “the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”

Monday’s proceedings reflected a changing America, as illustrated by the ceremony’s official participants. The inaugural poet was Richard Blanco, a gay Latino man and the son of Cuban émigrés. Rev. Luis Leon, an Episcopal Priest, gave a portion of the closing benediction in Spanish.

It was day of celebration and optimism in Washington. Those in attendance, including Associated Students of Madison Legislative Affairs Chair Dan Statter, look forward to what Obama’s second term may bring.

“I thought he could have gotten more done with Democratic control [of Congress],” Statter said. “But these are his last four years and that’s it. There’s value to bipartisanship, but this time may require different strategies and tactics.”

Obama’s sentiments, tempered by experiences in an increasingly polarized Washington, were cautiously optimistic, and shared by colleagues including Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison.

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“I believe America spoke on Election Day and told us that we must work together and do what is right for America,” Pocan said in an email.

Obama now has more of his presidency behind him than ahead, and his address embodied the urgency of the moment—the sense of history at his back and a finite amount of time to enact change as President of the United States.

“Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life,” he said. ”Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.” 

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