From Michelle Obama's style to a controversial poem to a presidential smooch, here's the best and worst of the historic day.
(The Root) -- With the final inaugural ball finally wrapped up and all of the out-of-town attendees headed back home today, The Root decided to take a look back at the highs and lows of President Obama's second inauguration.
High: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday
Hollywood could not have scripted it better. On the day the nation celebrated the life and legacy of its most revered African-American civil rights activist, the ceremonial swearing-in of the country's first black president for his second term took place. The legacy of King hung over all of the inaugural festivities -- including when Stevie Wonder performed his signature "Happy Birthday" at an inaugural ball.
High: Michelle Obama's Wardrobe
If anyone has any doubts about how much America loved the first lady's blue jacquard Thom Browne coat and dress, consider this: Browne's website was so overloaded after he was identified as the designer, people had difficulty getting on it for hours. She also returned to Jason Wu, who designed her gown four years ago, only unlike last time's demure white, this time she sported fire-engine red. Last inaugural, Michelle Obama looked like a first lady, but this inaugural she looked like the First Lady of Fierce.
Low: Beyoncé's Wardrobe
She received raves for her performance of the national anthem (though it was later alleged that she lip-synched), but the pop diva's choice of dress for the occasion seemed more fitting for the Grammys than for the inauguration. The floor-length, embroidered, sheer-sleeved gown that she donned made many of us miss Aretha Franklin's unforgettable hat.
High: Obama Takes It All In -- One Last Time
While exiting the stage after his second public inauguration ceremony, President Obama lingered to catch one last look, saying, "I want to take a look one more time. I'm not going to see this again." The moment and image became one of the most poignant of the day.
Low: Chuck Schumer Sparks a Meme
As chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was destined to play a major role in Monday's inaugural activities. Unfortunately for him, he may not be remembered for that role in the way he'd hoped. Schumer is so notorious for his love of the cameras that, as reported by a number of outlets, there is a common Washington joke: "The most dangerous place in Washington is between New York's senior senator and a camera." His camera loving (some might call hogging) was on display in full force during the inaugural festivities, sparking endless ribbing in cyberspace and culminating in this priceless image, sure to start a meme.
High: The First Couple's Kiss
One thing that even political foes of the president have conceded is that the first family represents America very well. From the attractive and clearly in-love first couple to the adorable first daughters, they are without question a lovely, all-American family. When the president and first lady went in for a spontaneous Inaugural Day smooch, thanks to their awesome kids, hilarity and a lot of "awwwws" ensued. Watch it here.
High: President Obama's Speech
Filled with platitudes and light on specifics, President Obama's inaugural address from four years ago is widely considered one of his least memorable, and certainly not one of his best. His second inaugural address, however, will likely be remembered as just as important to his legacy as his star-making speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
The president made history by being the first commander in chief to champion gays and lesbians in his inaugural speech. He also spoke passionately about a number of issues, from immigration to climate change. If anyone assumed that this president was prepared to accept lame-duck status and a more passive approach in his second term, this speech erased any such speculation.
After his second swearing-in, the president urged unity, tolerance and action.
(The Root) -- After a first term that saw fierce partisanship, a struggling economy and widespread disagreement on the principles that define us as a nation, President Barack Obama kicked off his second term with an address calling for unity while celebrating the nation's growing diversity and insisting that we must respect and look out for all Americans.
"We have always understood that when times change, so must we," said the president as he addressed the nation. "That fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."
Speaking in a year that sees the convergence of two major anniversaries in the road to equality -- the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th and the March on Washington's 50th -- and on a day that coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, President Obama frequently invoked names and imagery from freedom struggles, as well as the battles fought by immigrants, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Certainly, his political base was not forgotten in this speech.
"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; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth," he intoned.
The coalition that helped re-elect the president was also well represented elsewhere in the inaugural proceedings. Slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, gave the invocation; the Rev. Luis Leon of of St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., gave a benediction that asked God to help "see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white; male or female; first-generation or immigrant American or daughter of the American Revolution; gay or straight; rich or poor"; and even GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee quoted Roots author Alex Haley.
But beyond that coalition are the 49 percent of voters who did not choose President Obama for a second term. To them, and to the lawmakers across the aisle with whom he must spend the coming weeks hammering out a budget deal, he said, "Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time."
Will he be able to lead Congress in solving our nation's economic problems and healing some of the political rifts that seem to have widened over the past four years? Time will tell if this sunny, brisk day in January is the beginning of real progress.
As he starts a second term, we look at how he's addressed eco-hazards in poor and minority areas.
(The Root) -- Until the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: environmental justice. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: Environmental justice -- the notion that Americans who live in poor and minority communities should not be overburdened by pollution and other environmental hazards -- has been an official priority of the federal government since 1994. That's when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to develop strategies to address the disproportionately high, adverse human-health or environmental effects of their programs on vulnerable populations.
President Obama emphasized his own commitment to the issue as early as his 2008 campaign, promising that, if elected, he would strengthen the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, expand the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program and empower low-income and minority communities to respond to threats to their environmental health.
First-term accomplishments: Obama made good on his commitment to strengthen the EPA when he appointed Lisa Garcia as associate assistant administrator for environmental justice and arranged for her to report directly to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instead of to a lower-level official.
Jackson tasked Garcia with integrating environmental policy into the agency's rulemaking and actions. Under Jackson's leadership, the EPA took the lead on the government's environmental-justice goals, with Garcia heading up the Interagency Working Group -- including representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce -- that's dedicated to the issue.
That group had lapsed under President George W. Bush but began meeting again in September 2010, Garcia told The Root. Reinvigorated, it began its work in earnest by holding 18 listening sessions around the country "to hear directly from the communities of color and poor communities whose environments posed the worst risks," she said.
From that feedback, the EPA created Plan EJ 2014, which Garcia called "EPA's road map to integrating environmental justice." Its goals, she says, are to "protect communities overburdened by pollution, to empower them to take action to improve the health and their environments and to build healthy, sustainable communities." In February 2011, each agency issued an environmental-justice plan for improving the quality of life for people in minority and tribal areas.
When it came to the promise to expand the Environmental Small Justice Grants Program -- whose funds go to help community-based programs in "overburdened and vulnerable communities" address environmental risks -- Politifact couldn't locate the year-by-year data on grant money awarded, but it did find that overall environmental-justice funding at the EPA in 2012 exceeded the amount Obama had inherited by about 25 percent, which it called "a healthy increase over four years."
The EPA's commitment to provide low-income communities with the legal ability to challenge policies was less successful. Although communities have the power to petition the federal agencies under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating on the basis of race, a 2011 report provided by the EPA from an outside consulting firm found that the agency had "not adequately adjudicated" these complaints, pointing to backlogs of cases, with some waiting as eight years. It's been accused of "poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness."
Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, a national environmental-justice organization, said that when it comes to this area, he's been gravely disappointed. "The agency has been just horrible when it comes to implementing and enforcing Title IV -- that is, ensuring recipients of federal money don't discriminate when it comes to environmental exposures," he told The Root.
An example, he says, is the agency's settlement in the widely reported Angelita v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation case, in which his organization represented the complainants. The EPA found that Latino children's exposure to pesticide pollution was disproportionate to what white children faced. But when it came to the settlement, "the agency lacked the political will to provide a meaningful remedy," he says, lamenting that it provided for little more than continued monitoring.
Newell wasn't alone. Sierra Club President Allison Chin called the settlement "a major blow to the cause of environmental justice."
Politifact concluded in November that overall, the administration had shown mixed progress and characterized its efforts to address environmental justice as "a compromise."
Second-term expectations: The agencies in the Interagency Working Group are due to publish progress reports on their environmental-justice strategies in 2013. The plan, Garcia said, is to "continue with our commitments" and "to be accountable and continue the work."
"We still think that if you focus on some of the vulnerable populations or areas that are overburdened, you can really make plosive movement and [have a] healthy impact, reduce asthma rates and really improve quality of life in communities," she told The Root.
Outside the agency, Newell says that advocates aren't as hopeful about seeing concrete actions and sanctions for environmental discrimination in the next term. His fear is that the second term will be like the first, characterized by, as he puts it, "a lot of talk and little action."
"If the Obama administration is going to make environmental justice a reality, it has to change the environmental injustice that is occurring on the ground ... We can't continue to talk about 'initiatives.' That's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Newell said. "And giving communities a voice isn't [enough], either, if the process is discriminatory. What good is being at the table if you're going to be on the menu?"
As his second term nears, we look at his record on gay rights and make predictions.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: LGBT rights. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: According to polls, attitudes about gay Americans have shifted dramatically over the last two decades. In 1974, 74 percent of Americans said they would not elect a qualified gay person as president. By 1999 that number had fallen to 37 percent. In 2001, 57 percent opposed same-sex marriage. Today 48 percent support it. Since it first became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, nine other U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriage. There have been other noticeable shifts.
In 1997, comedian Ellen Degeneres' announcement that she was gay was deemed newsworthy enough to land her on the cover of Time magazine, and proved detrimental to her career. Her eponymous sitcom was canceled shortly after. Today Degeneres is one of the most successful talk show hosts in the country and popular enough to have landed an endorsement deal with cosmetics powerhouse CoverGirl. She is among a number of celebrities who have felt comfortable enough to publicly acknowledge being gay in the last decade, something that would have been unthinkable for many of them years ago.
President Obama's own evolution on this issue has mirrored the nation's -- to some degree. According to a campaign questionnaire from 1996, he supported same-sex marriage early in his career before telling mega-church Pastor Rick Warren in 2008, "I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian ... it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix." In the same interview, he expressed support for civil unions.
First-term accomplishments: Next to student loans, LGBT rights has turned out to be an issue on which the Obama administration has enjoyed one of its most significant list of accomplishments.
As I have written before, the president has appointed more openly gay elected officials than any of his predecessors. He instructed the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) -- calling it unconstitutional -- signed the repeal of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, pushed for greater protections for gays and lesbians abroad and directed the Department of Health and Human Services to order hospitals to permit visitation and decision-making rights for gay and lesbian couples, one of the primary concerns of LGBT couples unable to marry. But perhaps most significantly, last year he became the first sitting president to express support for same-sex marriage. (The White House recently served as the backdrop to its first public same-sex marriage proposal.)
Second-term hopes: The case can be and has been made that the president has actually accomplished more in his first term for the LGBT community than he has for any other minority group, including black Americans. That being said, as previously noted in this series, his nominations of a number of openly gay men and women to the federal bench have given some hope that he could appoint the first openly gay Supreme Court Justice. But before that, as the high court is poised to hear one of its first cases addressing same-sex marriage, some are wondering if the president may put the judicial power of the White House behind the issue, the way he has on issues such as affirmative action. (Read more here.) Whether he does or not, the president has already insured that his work on LGBT rights will likely be among the most memorable aspects of his presidential legacy, and in years to come many LGBT Americans may credit this president in the same way many black Americans look back and credit President Lyndon Johnson on civil rights today.
As we count down to a second term, a look at his family-assistance efforts.
(The Root) -- Between now and the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: addressing the challenges faced by single parents. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: It's widely known that nearly 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, and a similar share are raised in single-parent households (which can also result from divorce or the death of a spouse). Many of these kids are doing fine, but as the National Fatherhood Initiative has noted, children living in single-parent homes are more likely to be poor, have emotional and behavioral problems, drop out of school, become teen parents and be incarcerated. They live in households with a median income that is one-quarter that of traditional two-parent households. Women head the majority of single-parent households.
Stacey F. Johnson remembers struggling as a single mother to raise three children -- a girl and two boys. She worked two jobs, including one as a security guard, to bring in extra money. She couldn't afford child care and sometimes had her 6-year-old daughter take care of her two younger sons, ages 4 and 1, while Johnson went to work.
"I was blessed by the grace of God that nothing [bad] ever happened," said Johnson, 48.
Johnson started the Association of African American Single Mothers in Sacramento, Calif., 17 years ago. The nonprofit focuses on education opportunities for single mothers and teaches them financial stability and life skills. Her children are now adults, ages 25, 22 and 20. But Johnson still remembers what she faced as a single parent.
"It was a challenge," said Johnson. "I had to go the extra mile when it came to being a single mom."
First-term accomplishments: The government has a number of safety net programs that help families with housing, food and child care -- assistance that single-parent households need disproportionately. For example, using funds from the Recovery Act, the Obama administration expanded the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, to help families with food crises and invested in jobs for disadvantaged youths and low-income individuals. And the administration's Promise Neighborhoods give cradle-to-college services to high-poverty communities.
But as the child of a single mother, Obama also knew firsthand the importance of a strong male figure in a child's life. During his first term, President Obama visited churches on Father's Day and talked about the joy of being a father and the impact that dads can have on their children's lives.
"The National Fatherhood Initiative comes from the president's own personal experience. It's an issue that's important to him and personal to him," said Michael Strautmanis, deputy assistant to the president and counselor for strategic engagement to White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett. "He grew up without a father in his life. He knows the impact that can have on a child. He's also working to be the best dad he can be to his two girls."
Last summer the Obama administration launched a new program under his Fatherhood Initiative called Fatherhood Buzz, an outreach effort on responsible fatherhood using local barbershops throughout the country. Barbershop patrons can receive parenting tips as well as information about job training and healthy living.
"It's a way to really connect with fathers and give them access to information that they might need to be better connected with their children," said Strautmanis.
In addition, the administration provides grants to help strengthen grassroots organizations with a proven record of having a positive impact on fathers and, through its Fatherhood Champions of Change program, recognizes community leaders who are making a difference in the lives of fathers.
"We've seen the impact that the absence of fathers has had on children's lives and on their communities, so we want to make a difference every place we can," said Strautmanis.
Second-term hopes: As the economy turns upward, the Obama administration has been working to make sure that the most vulnerable families, including those headed by single parents, have an opportunity to participate in the job market. It has used the Recovery Act to put resources into states that allow them to help single parents find jobs.
Last year an estimated 260,000 families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, got jobs -- half of which were summer jobs for youths, said Earl Johnson, director of the Office of Family Assistance at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families. "We believe jobs are an important component of being able to stabilize single-parent households," Johnson told The Root.
The Health Profession Opportunity Grants are an important program that was implemented last year. Low-income women -- predominantly single mothers with children -- receive funding to attend classes in the health field at local community colleges. Last year the grants, which are in 23 states, helped more than 10,000 participants become part of the health industry. Johnson says that the goal is to reach more than 30,000 people in the next two years.
"We've been aggressively trying to deal with single parents and their children, trying to focus our work so that we improve both the parent's and the child's outcomes," said Johnson. "The mission of the administration is to make sure that the whole family is well and taken care of and also is responsible for its own well-being."
Last year the Obama administration implemented the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative. The program was created with funding from the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, which provided $150 million in grants to community organizations that help couples and fathers.
There are 120 grantees, including groups that prepare young people for parenthood. Five grants are awarded specifically to organizations that help formerly incarcerated fathers reconnect with their families and communities. Other grantees focus on job development and education.
The goal of the Administration for Children and Families, Johnson said, is to address those challenges within communities that may lead to negative outcomes, such as incarceration, teen pregnancy and school dropouts. "We really are trying to make sure that our programs deal with the single parent who is economically and socially challenged to raise their child," said Johnson. "We're trying to put together a holistic package where our programs can become better integrated in serving them and their needs."