The president was careful not to make his remarks overtly partisan, but he had a message for Republicans: Compromise and embrace government as part of the solution.
Obama, emboldened by his re-election with ultimately comfortable margins, laid out a progressive agenda. He stood up for spending on entitlement programs, promoted immigration reform, gay marriage, tax reform and laws to make voting easier, and unexpectedly gave one of his most impassioned calls for climate change -- an issue that has not been at the forefront of the political debate.
"The president may have spent more time discussing climate change in this speech than his entire first term in office," said University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall. He described the address as "certainly a bolder and riskier speech from a president that doesn't have to run for re-election again."
The president promoted his health care reform and stood up for commitments to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security at a time when some Republicans say entitlement programs need to be scaled back to reduce the deficit. "They do not make us a nation of takers," Obama said. "They free us to take the risks that make this country great."
This was the language of his re-election campaign and an implicit reminder of Mitt Romney's ill-timed declaration that Obama's support came from the 47 percent of American voters "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them."
St. Johns University political scientist Diane Heith said she was surprised how much the campaign influenced Obama's speech.
"This is a continued effort to contrast with the Republican view that government produces dependency rather than Obama's view of a community taking care of itself," Heith said. "And some will likely think it was also a bit of a shot at the Republican -- Romney -- who put that belief out there so baldly."
Obama referenced the 1969 Stonewall riots against police harassment by patrons of a New York City gay bar, classing them as a civil rights watershed along with key moments in the struggles for women and blacks. The president said that the truth that all are created equal guides us today "just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall."
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," the president said to applause from the crowd down the National Mall, "for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well." It was a line that would never have been uttered in an inaugural address before -- not even in Obama's first, since he changed his position to become the first president to support gay marriage just last year.
There was just a passing reference to the school shooting in Connecticut that hangs over a looming debate on gun control. "Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm," Obama said.
Obama said Americans have never succumbed to the fiction that government is the total solution. "But 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," the president argued.
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