WASHINGTON - In a private White House ceremony, Barack Obama has sworn for a second time to "protect and defend" the U.S. Constitution, officially affirming the duties of president in an oath he will repeat for hundreds of thousands of people during gala ceremonies Monday.
The day of festivities, parades and fancy dress balls will mark the beginning of Obama's second four-year term as America's first black president. The politician who rose improbably from a history as a community organizer in Chicago and a professor of constitutional law to the pinnacle of power faces a nation riven by partisan disunity, a still-weak economy and an array of challenges abroad.
Obama will today take the oath again before the crowd and is expected to follow the recent tradition of walking at least part of the way back to the White House, surrounded by cheers.
In the briefest of ceremonies Sunday, with family gathered in the White House, Obama took the oath of office shortly before noon, as required by law. With his left hand on a family bible held by first lady Michelle Obama, the 44th president raised his right hand and repeated the time-honoured words read out by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
The intimate swearing-in met the legal requirement that presidents officially take office on Jan. 20. Because that date fell on a Sunday this year, the traditional public ceremonies surrounding the start of a president's term were put off to Monday, which coincides this year with the birthday of revered civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
Obama made no special remarks at Sunday's ceremony. "I did it," he said quietly to his youngest daughter, Sasha, before wrapping her in a hug. The oath went smoothly, unlike four years ago, when Roberts made mistakes while trying to recite the oath from memory and had to do it again with Obama later.
Monday's events are expected to have less of the effervescence of four years ago, when the 1.8 million people packed into central Washington knew they were witnessing history. Obama is now older, greyer and more entrenched in the politics he once tried rise above. Officials are expecting 500,000 to 700,000 people to turn out Monday.
As he enters his second term, Americans increasingly see Obama as a strong leader, someone who stands up for his beliefs and is able to get things done, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The survey shows him with a 52 per cent job approval rating, among the highest rankings since early in his presidency. His personal favourability, 59 per cent, has rebounded from a low of 50 per cent in the 2012 campaign against Republican Mitt Romney.
When the partying is done on Monday, it's back to business for a president who is leading a nation that is, perhaps, as divided as at any time since the Civil War 150 years ago. That conflict put down a rebellion by southern states and ended slavery.
In light of the nation's troubled racial history, Obama's election to the White House in 2008 as the first black president was seen by many as a turning point. In his first inaugural address, Obama vowed to moderate the partisan anger engulfing the country, but the nation is only more divided four years on.
While Obama convincingly won a second term, the jubilation that surrounded him four years ago is subdued this time around — a reality for second-term presidents. He guided the country through many crushing challenges after taking office in 2009: ending the Iraq war, putting the Afghan war on a course toward U.S. withdrawal and saving the collapsing economy. He won approval for a sweeping health care overhaul. Yet onerous problems remain, and his success in resolving them will define his place in history.
Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, are at political war about gun control and managing the nation's finances
Shortly before Obama took the oath privately on Sunday, a top White House adviser made the rounds of nationally televised talk shows, saying he was confident Congress would pass comprehensive immigration reform this year, but he sounded less sure about prospects for toughening the nation's gun laws.
Immigration reform should be easier as Republicans realize their stance on that issue led to an overwhelming Hispanic vote in favour of Obama last year.
On gun control, Plouffe mixed statements of optimism with an acknowledgement of political realities. Republicans in the House and even some Democrats in the Senate have been extremely cautious in addressing the issue. "It's going to be very, very hard," Plouffe said on CBS.
Obama also faces bitter confrontation with Republicans over avoiding a default on the nation's debts, cutting the spiraling federal deficit and preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
Obama may have to decide whether to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, something he is loath to do. Washington and its allies believe Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is intended for producing electricity. Obama has vowed to keep Iran from crossing the line to nuclear-armed status, but insists there is still time for diplomacy. But Israel is pressuring him to take military action sooner rather than later.
Obama will also have to deal with the civil war in Syria, Israel-Palestinian tensions, a chill in relations with Russia and a series of maritime disputes in Asia. The administration has long talked of making a "pivot" toward Asia after the U.S. has directed much of its energy to the Middle East in the past decade.
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