In speech, Barack Obama pushes activist government and takes on far right

Republican President Ronald Reagan declared in 1981 that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Fifteen years later, Democratic President Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over."

That wasn't exactly President Barack Obama's message in his second inaugural address on Monday.

In a spirited defense of government's role as a protector of society's most vulnerable people, the Democratic president signaled a determination to protect costly social programs that have been targeted by Republicans seeking to reduce growth in the $16.4 trillion U.S. debt.

In a series of implied jabs at uncompromising conservatives who have fostered gridlock in Congress and cast him as an un-American socialist, Obama essentially portrayed such critics as being outside the mainstream of U.S. politics.

"We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama said during his 18-minute speech.

Laying out a broad vision for his second four-year term, Obama delivered a speech that struck many of the themes that ran through his re-election campaign.

Chief among them: a call to increase opportunities for the middle class and "reject the idea that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future."

Such comments struck a nerve with some Republicans, who saw them as a sign that Obama might be unwilling to make significant cuts to the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs and the Social Security retirement program - and that the president might seek more tax increases on the nation's richest people.

Cutting back on those "entitlement" programs is widely viewed as a significant part of reducing the budget deficit.

"It was a speech outlining vigorous support for expanding the size and reach of government - at a time when there is a national call for, and bipartisan support of, reduced Washington spending," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader.

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