George W. Bush was officially sworn in to begin his second term as president of the United States Thursday, promising to pursue "the expansion of freedom in all the world."

About 250,000 people endured temperatures that hovered just below the freezing point to watch the 58-year-old president reaffirm his oath of office outside the Capitol building.

He did so just before noon, his hand on a family Bible as his wife Laura and daughters Jenna and Barbara looked on. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist presided, though the 80-year-old jurist has been recovering from thyroid cancer over the past several weeks.

Bush then delivered his second inaugural address, which had gone through a reported 21 rewrites.

"There is only one force in history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment ... and that is the force of human freedom," he said.

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

Iraq not mentioned by name

He did not specifically mention the U.S. military occupation of Iraq in the 2,000-word speech, but obliquely referred to its challenges and dangers.

"Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfil and would be dishonorable to abandon," he said. "[But]... tens of millions have obtained their freedom, and as hope kindles hope, many more millions will find it."

The president quoted his predecessor Abraham Lincoln, who struggled to ban slavery, as he warned of the consequences to world leaders who deny personal liberty to their citizens. "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it."

Bush went on to call freedom a fire that "burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world."

He appealed directly to young Americans watching the ceremony, asking them to take inspiration from soldiers serving overseas and consider enlisting to boost the country's military forces.

"You have seen that life is fragile and evil is real and courage triumphs," he said. "Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself, and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country but to its character."

Cheney takes second oath as VP

The president's renewed oath was preceded by the swearing in of Vice-President Dick Cheney, 63, who is also entering his second term in office.

Security was heavy for the first inauguration since the al-Qaeda network attacked targets on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001.

At that point, Bush had been in office for only eight months, elected on a platform that concentrated on domestic rather than foreign issues.

That platform was all but thrown out as the Republican administration turned to "the war on terror" as its main priority after the Sept. 11 attackers piloted hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Running on a promise to stop at nothing to keep Americans safe from extremist threats, Bush defeated Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry in the November 2004 election.

Approval ratings not high

Despite that victory, the former Texas governor's approval rating in a recent Associated Press poll was just 49 per cent, the lowest for any recent two-term president.

Part of the reason for that is a division in America over the United States' continued military presence in Iraq, which it invaded in March 2003 in a drive to keep dictator Saddam Hussein from supplying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to foes of the U.S.

No such weapons were ever found in Iraq, and the U.S. military abandoned the search last week.

Bush has long insisted that Saddam had to be deposed in any case because he intended to develop such weapons, and was an enemy of democracy in his own country.

The occupation of Iraq has led to the deaths of nearly 1,100 American soldiers.

Domestic agenda ahead for Bush

As Bush recited the oath to become the 16th second-term president Thursday, he did so determined to spend the next four years tackling more domestic items.

They include:

  • Reforming the nation's Social Security system, which provides retirement benefits to older Americans.
  • Changing what he has called an "outdated tax code."
  • Relaxing environmental rules to allow more oil and gas exploration.
  • Placing limits on awards in medical malpractice suits.
Shortly after winning the November election, Bush promised to use his second term spending his "political capital" to muster support for those measures.

Inaugurations are usually non-partisan events when political differences are set aside in the interest of mending fences and celebrating the institution of the presidency.

That means Democrats and Republicans alike thronged to the day's many public events, including Thursday morning's prayer service at St. John's Church near the White House and the nine balls the Bushes planned to attend in the afternoon and evening.

In all, the events, funded by private donations, will cost $40 million US. The federal and District of Columbia governments will spend another $20 million on security.

Former Democratic president Bill Clinton and his wife Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled and shook dozens of hands as they arrived on Capitol Hill – as did Kerry, 2½ months after failing in his bid to become the man hailed as the chief at this ceremony.

Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, was there with his wife Barbara to watch their son begin the second term of office that was denied to the elder Bush.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, was among the well-known Republicans present, offering a calm "no comment" to a CNN reporter asking about his own presidential ambitions.

Some protests planned

Anti-Bush emotions did surface both in Washington and around the world, however.

Anti-war protesters planned demonstrations in the capital, turning their backs while Bush passed by along the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some planned a separate protest away from the site, carrying black cardboard coffins representing soldiers killed in Iraq as well as signs reading: "Worst President Ever" and "Four More Years: God HELP America."

Candlelight protests were scheduled in England and Germany, while Democrats living abroad in Austria and Switzerland planned muted gatherings to drown their sorrows and read patriotic poetry.