President's words spell out no-apology liberal agenda

President Obama , who spoke of an urgency to act, likely has less than two years before he is weakened by lame-duck status. MARK GAIL / MCT
President Obama , who spoke of an urgency to act, likely has less than two years before he is weakened by lame-duck status. MARK GAIL / MCT
Posted: January 23, 2013

WASHINGTON - President Obama used his second inaugural address Monday to make the case for a liberal last-term agenda that would more sharply define his legacy, arguing that issues such as climate change, immigration reform, gun control and gay rights represent the civil rights concerns of his generation.

The speech served as an epilogue to his first inaugural address, which was defined by the stern tone he employed "in the midst of crisis." He echoed some of the same broad themes, including the need for the nation's political leaders to act in common cause to adapt to a changing country and world.

But Obama did so with more optimism, partisanship, and populism than he did on a far colder day four years ago. The caveats and compromises that he included then to appease leery Republicans uncertain of his political approach were almost entirely absent from the arguments he made Monday.

"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," Obama told the gathered crowd on the Mall. "For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay."

The urgency to act is especially true for Obama, who likely has less than two years to secure his domestic agenda before the political strength derived from his recent reelection evaporates into lame-duck status.

Obama alluded to a second-term agenda that includes immigration reform, protecting entitlements from budget cuts and defending the vulnerable from a warming climate and gun violence. It was a thematic preview of next month's State of the Union address, which he will use to more fully detail his plans and approach.

Speaking on the national holiday celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Obama invoked the civil-rights movement as the rationale for his priorities throughout the 19-minute address.

As he has several times since Election Day, Obama struck the unapologetic tone of a politician free of the political constraints that come with future elections. He also embraced more clearly than he has in the past a liberal view of government activism - to encourage new industries, to promote new rights, and to defend programs that have reflected essential Democratic priorities for generations of voters.

Health-care programs for the elderly and the poor "do not make us a nation of takers," Obama said, borrowing some pointed language used by GOP opponents in the last campaign.

"They free us to take risks that make this country great," he said to applause.

When he addressed a far-larger crowd four years ago, Obama delivered remarks unexpectedly grim for a historic occasion - the swearing-in of the country's first African American president.

But with more than 150,000 U.S troops fighting two wars overseas and a teetering financial system, Obama then wanted the message to match the moment as he urged the country to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

On Monday, he replaced the list of national challenges that he presented four years ago with a list of liberal solutions that he intends to pursue as part of what one senior adviser described as "a project of advocacy on behalf of the middle class."

As Obama noted pointedly, "For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it."

Beyond the specifics of his agenda, there is a message on the virtues of political participation that Obama, the former Harvard law student, wants to leave with an increasingly skeptical American electorate before he leaves office.

He began that lecture Monday, invoking the civil rights movement again to declare that "our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote."

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