People wave American flags near the Capitol building on the National Mall on Jan. 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Joe Raedle

The world was watching as Barack Obama took his ceremonial oath of office in Washington today, sounding a message of unity to a nation that has been bitterly divided by a long and bruising election campaign, economic strife and military misadventures abroad.

But the president devoted little time and attention to foreign affairs in his 20-minute address; he remained firmly focused on the numerous problems he will have to deal with at home.

In echoing the words of the Founding Fathers, Obama recognized that a gulf continues to exist between the ideals of the past and the realities of the present.

“What makes us exceptional — what makes us American — is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago,” he said.

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing.”

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Obama went on to outline his priorities for his second term, the achievements he hopes will define his legacy: supporting the middle class; addressing climate change; ensuring that older Americans are taken care of in their “twilight years;” driving through immigration reform; and working toward full equality under the law for gays and lesbians.

Four years ago, Obama’s inaugural address carried a heavy load of internationalism:

“And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more,” he said.

This time around, his appeal was to his fellow countrymen, with mention of the outside world mainly restricted to assurances that more than a decade of war was now over.

“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” said the president. “Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty.”

America will remain a bulwark of freedom, but by peaceful engagement rather than active intervention.

“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” he said. “For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”

The president faces a host of challenges on the foreign policy front as he enters his second term. The war in Afghanistan is winding down for American forces, but the country's future, and the results of the 11-year intervention, remain uncertain.

With Israel facing parliamentary elections Tuesday, the Middle East seems as far from peace and stability as ever. A terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda has just mounted a large and ugly attack in Algeria that killed at least 80 people. Iran may or may not be developing nuclear weapons, and tensions with China continue.

These issues will have to be addressed, but today the president chose to focus on his domestic agenda.

His inclusion of gay rights in the litany of civil rights struggles was a surprise to many.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” said Obama.

Seneca Falls was the site of one of the first women’s rights conventions, in 1848; Selma, Ala. is the city from which civil rights marches originated in the 1960s.

A police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969 sparked a series of riots by New York’s gay and lesbian community that are seen as the beginning of the gay rights movement.

Obama also brought up the massacre of schoolchildren that occurred in Newtown, Conn., undoubtedly to remind his Republican opponents he did not intend to back down on gun control this time around.

“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,” said Obama.

The inauguration was an event steeped in symbolism.

Obama took his ceremonial oath on two Bibles. One had belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr. The event took place on the day devoted to marking King’s contribution to the civil rights movement, not far from where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago.

The other Bible was the one upon which Abraham Lincoln took his oath office in 1861. Obama used this Bible at his first swearing-in ceremony in 2009, as well.

This year marks 150 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, an act that Obama mentioned in his address:

“Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free,” he said.

Obama wants to promote true equality at home while trying to maintain stability abroad, but economic challenges will undoubtedly take priority.

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” said Obama.

The United States will not abandon its role as world leader, he emphasized.

“We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom,” he said.

“And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”

It is an ambitious agenda; it remains to be seen whether the president will have the time and the strength to carry it out.

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