“Silver trucks, heavy with oil or paper, bricks or milk, teeming over highways, alongside us on our way to clean tables, read ledgers or save lives,” he read. “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.”
For Obama, Monday’s inaugural address showed the evolution of a complicated political persona. In 2004, Obama became a national figure by telling his story as a second-generation American: his star-making speech at the Democratic National Convention began with the narrative of his father, who was born in Kenya.
By 2009, when Obama gave his first inaugural address, he spoke not as an inspirational symbol but as a national leader, counseling stoicism in the face of recession and suffering. “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” he said then.
On Monday, Obama cast himself in a third role: the face of a political agenda. Instead of merely holding the country together, he would seek to change it.
Here was a president freed — but also harried — by the knowledge that his clock was ticking, and he would never run for reelection again.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”
Obama did not explicitly mention gun control, a subject that seems certain to dominate the first months of his second term. But he did mention Newtown, Conn., where a shooting rampage last month spurred his recent push to tighten gun laws.
On immigration reform, Obama did not make specific new proposals. But he mentioned the topic, along with gay rights, among a series of struggles that sought to translate the Founders’ ambitions into modern times.
“Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” he said, “until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
Now that Obama has articulated those goals, a serious fight remains. The House, and a powerful portion of the Senate, remains in the hands of Republicans — many of whom believe that Washington’s biggest problems are spending and debt.
On Monday, there already were signs that they viewed Obama’s agenda as, at best, a distraction from those pressing concerns.
Debbi Wilgoren and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.