Obama Focuses On Togetherness In Inaugural Address

Despite its message of togetherness, President Obama also used his second inaugural speech to defy his critics and defend his philosophy of government.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From the throngs on the mall to NPR's Ari Shapiro now, who is up on the viewing stand, watching the inauguration at the Capitol.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Today's program began with a reminder of the distance this country has traveled. Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered the invocation. Her late husband was the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, shot and killed 50 years ago in Mississippi. Half a century later, as President Obama was inaugurated on Martin Luther King Day, she looked back at the road gone by 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years from the march on Washington.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: We celebrate the spirit of our ancestors which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes to today's expression of a more perfect union.

SHAPIRO: To continue the message of unity, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee took the microphone. He's a Republican, and he talked about the uniqueness of this American tradition when people who may disagree about everything join together to start a new chapter of the American story.

SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER: There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection. This is a moment when millions stop and watch.

SHAPIRO: President Obama and Vice President Biden each took a ceremonial oath of office, then the president stepped to the lectern and described how he wants the country to look four years from now, in contrast to how it looked four years ago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.

SHAPIRO: His second inaugural address used the word together seven times in 15 minutes. It could've been a preamble to the State of the Union Address he'll deliver next month setting out specific priorities from climate change to immigration reform. And despite the message of togetherness, the president used this speech to defy his critics and defend his philosophy of government.

OBAMA: The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: They do not make us a nation of takers, they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

SHAPIRO: On foreign policy, the president seemed to speak directly to people who accuse him of appeasement and weakness on the world stage.

OBAMA: We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naive about the dangers we face but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.

SHAPIRO: And finally, the president included a call that has become a regular feature of his speeches on everything from the debt ceiling to gun control. Like the community organizer he used to be, he once again asked everyone listening to act.

OBAMA: You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.

SHAPIRO: Poet Richard Blanco spoke to those values and ideals, describing one sun rising over the many faces of America.

RICHARD BLANCO: ...on our way to clean tables, read ledgers or save lives, to teach geometry or ring up groceries as my mother did for 20 years so I could write this poem for all of us today.

SHAPIRO: Blanco is the son of Cuban immigrants and one of many Latino voices today. Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, swore in the vice president, and Dr. Luis Leon delivered the benediction, asking in Spanish and English for the country to come together.

DR. LUIS LEON: With the blessing of your presence, we know that we can renew the ties of mutual regard which can best form our civic life.

SHAPIRO: Finally, Beyonce sang the national anthem backed by the U.S. Marine band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see...

SHAPIRO: Four years ago, Aretha Franklin sang at President Obama's first inauguration. She was born in 1942 when her hometown of Memphis was still segregated. Beyonce was born four decades later into a different United States. That evolution from one America to another is part of what the country marked today on this Martin Luther King Day inaugural celebration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

BEYONCE: (Singing) ...the brave.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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