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Inauguration Day's Symbolism And Substance


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, at the west front of the United States Capitol, here in Washington; where we're about three hours away from President Obama's symbolic swearing-in for a second term.

Thousands of people are here. As we look out across the Mall, though, there are some differences. Four years ago, there were people climbing on a Civil War Memorial - which I can see from here - climbing up over the statues. This time around, that monument is fenced off. The crowds are a little bit less intense, but it is still a symbolically important day. And we're going to talk about that with some of my colleagues here. First, NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Ari, good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're noting that it's Martin Luther King Day, and that the person delivering the invocation today, at the inauguration, is Myrlie Evers-Williams.

SHAPIRO: Right, Myrlie Evers-Williams - not a religious leader, not an elected leader, but the widow of Medgar Evers, who was slain 50 years ago this year. Myrlie is now 80 years old. She was 30 then. She was standing in her driveway in Mississippi when her husband, the Mississippi chapter head of the NAACP, was shot in front of her and her children.

She became a civil rights leader in her own right; became a leader in business, women's rights, racial equality. And so now, for her to be delivering the invocation at this second inauguration of Barack Obama, is a really significant moment on Martin Luther King Day.

INSKEEP: A reminder that whether you agreed with his policies or disagreed with his policies, it's a momentous event to have a black president in this country.

SHAPIRO: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Audie Cornish is also with us. She's going to be co-anchoring our live coverage, beginning a little bit less than an hour from now. And Audie, you were noticing the person who has already delivered an oath of office once to Vice President Joe Biden - formally yesterday, officially yesterday - will do it again today, on stage in front of the crowd.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Yeah, on the schedule today is Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor. And you know, it's interesting seeing her on stage because just a few minutes ago, a VIP went by - one Joaquin Castro, a Latino lawmaker from Texas; considered - kind of one of these rising stars. And it's interesting, seeing more - kind of Latino voices on stage in this inauguration; and not just the associate justice but also Richard Blanco, the poet, I believe is from Cuba.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about Richard Blanco because - Renee Montagne, you interviewed him as he prepared to deliver the Inaugural poem. What's he like?

MONTAGNE: Well, first of all, he was very excited about doing this, a couple of weeks ago; just beginning to write the poem that you will hear today. He is the first Latino poet to read at an inauguration; also, the first openly gay. He's an immigrant; the child of Cuban exiles. And although he hadn't - did - barely started his poem, one clue was that he said he was inspired by Walt Whitman and his great theme, the theme that America contains multitudes.

INSKEEP: And so we'll have to wait and see exactly what that poem is going to focus on. We'll also wait and see what the presidential inaugural speech will consist of. But as we go through this symbolism, of course, we're also thinking about substance because it is the beginning of a second term, and a difficult - a challenging time for the country.

And let's bring in another voice to talk about that. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson is in our studios. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning. I'm nice and warm in here.



MONTAGNE: We're having a - we're not wearing coats here.

INSKEEP: Yeah, well, the sun has reached the spot where we are. So we're happy. We're happy now. But go ahead. Go ahead.

MONTAGNE: Well, Mara, we've talked a lot about the differences in numbers for this inauguration. That is, the crowds are lower, the number of balls fewer. But what about the political and economic environment that begins President Obama's second term?

LIASSON: Well, the political and economic environment is very different than his first term, although I would say the stakes are just as high for him. Obviously, he's not presiding - he's not coming into office at a time of economic crisis and financial system collapse. But - and he's winding down two wars instead of being in the midst of fighting them.

However, he does have a big, ambitious agenda. Politics in Washington seems as broken as ever, and as gridlocked. And now, the challenge for the president is to see if he can get his gun policies passed; comprehensive immigration reform; and somehow find a way to make the grand bargain with the Republicans, to deal with the country's long-term fiscal problems - which really is the key to unlocking the kind of investment in education and infrastructure and research that he believes will help mitigate income inequality and help provide more security for the middle class.

MONTAGNE: Which would seem to be the first big test of his second term. But talk to us about foreign policy. It was a big part of President Obama's first inaugural speech. What about this speech - what do you expect?

LIASSON: On foreign policy, I think the president will point out that we are in a time of winding down the war in Afghanistan. He's finished the war in Iraq. I think that he's taking a very cautious approach to other conflicts around the world, and American involvement. But this term, he will have a lot of trouble spots to deal with - Iran, North Korea; al-Qaida is still active in all of its similar groups in the Middle East; you just had a terrorist situation in Algeria. The Arab Spring is very complicated and, of course, the Middle Eastern peace process is - people are as pessimistic as ever, about what the United States can do there. So the president will have a lot on his plate, in terms of foreign policy, but he has appointed some people who feel, as he does, very cautious about American intervention and involvement overseas.


Mara, thanks very much. NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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