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January 21, 2013
Barack Obama inauguration: a call for unity that may go unheeded by half the country
It was billed as Barack Obama's 'Martin Luther King moment', when America's first black president would outline his own dream for a more united America, but all along the length of Washington's great Mall, it was apparent that only half of the nation had showed up to listen to his call.
Overwhelmingly, the crowd of 800,000 people was filled with the faces of the young, female, urban, African-American coalition that ensured Mr Obama's re-election for a second term last November. They were Obama's people, and they were there to celebrate their victory.
After being sworn in on the bibles of his political heroes Abraham Lincoln and Dr King – without any fumbling of the oath of office as happened in 2009 – Mr Obama acknowledged the "uncertain future" faced by America and asked his "fellow Americans" to unite in facing its challenges.
And yet Mr Obama's prescription was an uncompromising and urgent statement of the liberal agenda that leaves Conservative forces – predominantly white, rural and evangelically Christian – seething with anger and alienation.
On gay marriage and gun control, on immigration and inequality, on the global issues of war and climate change, Mr Obama unapologetically reiterated his commitment to his own brand of social and economic inclusiveness.
He quoted the Declaration of Independence – a document, ironically often used by the Tea Party and Republicans – but made very different deductions from its premises than those heard from the American Right.
"We, the people understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," he said, over a blur of nearly a million waving Stars and Stripes, echoing his campaign attacks on the economic agenda of an absent Mitt Romney – the first defeated opponent not to attend an inauguration since 1989.
The message was welcomed by a group of five young black high school students who had made the journey from New Orleans, paid for by "Upward Bound", a Federal government programme aimed to encourage young people to stay in school and get to university.
As Mr Obama hailed Dr King for leading the fight for racial equality, and promised to carry on "what those pioneers" had begun, the students looked on excitedly wearing signs that read: "Dr King's Legacy: Jobs, not war".
"This is history," beamed 17-year-old Geterrian Tillman who wants to be a paediatrician, "Obama getting elected again? Twice in a row? It's crazy. It's keepin the dream alive. The sign is about the job shortages we're having right now. We need to spend money on making jobs, not war."
Far off in the distance – a spec up on the Western Steps of the US Capitol, where former president George W Bush was also absent – Mr Obama was agreeing, pointedly rejecting the interventionist outlook of his predecessor with the observation that "we, the people" do not believe that "lasting peace" requires "perpetual war".
The same crowd also appreciated Mr Obama's surprisingly frank statement of his commitment on gay marriage, as he became the first president in history to use the word 'gay' in an inaugural address.
Only one tiny portion of the crowd gathered on the Mall disagreed, and they were corralled by police behind metal barriers, apparently for their own safety, marching around with placards proclaiming that "God Hates Fags" and "Anti-Christ Obama".
Some stopped to shout abuse at the placard-holders, other just shook their heads, most just laughed.
"It's sad, doesn't God love everyone?", asked 52-year-old Elizabeth Baker, a Christian aid-worker trying to engage her fellow Christians, who fired back snatches of scripture, promising that God would separate the sheep and the goats soon enough.
Back on the stage, at the far end on Pennsylvania, the ceremonies were unfolding in a manner that bore all the hallmarks of the Obama White House, scattered with the celebrities and liberal pieties that the 'other' side so despise.
A gay Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco, read a work entitled "One Today" that echoed the theme of togetherness and told of an American nation under "one sun" and "one moon", rooted in "one ground".
It all ended with a typically flamboyant performance of the American national anthem by the singer Beyoncé – the leader of a glamour-pack that included Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder and Kelly Clarkson – and who received a cheer equal, almost, to the president.
The world watched the first family watching: Mr Obama, Michelle Obama with her new fringe and their two daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, whose suddenly adult poise provided the sharpest reminder of that another four years had passed.
As Beyonce's notes faded into a grey sky and the crowds waved and cheered, Mr Obama made his exit, but suddenly turned to look down the Mall, pausing wistfully for almost a minute as he took in the scene.
"I want to look out one more time," he said, afterwards, conscious of history as ever, "because I'll never see this again."