The president, who played golf earlier in the day, told the approximately 1,200 guests from all branches of the military who attended the picnic and concert on the South Lawn that he couldn't think of a better way to celebrate Independence Day than to spend it with those serving the country in the armed forces.
"This is the day when we celebrate the very essence of America and the spirit that has defined us as a people and as a nation for more than two centuries," Obama said. "Even now, all these years later, we still look in awe at the small band of patriots who stood up and risked everything and defied an empire to declare that these united colonies 'are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.'"
The president touched on various rights -- civil, voting, workers', women's -- that belong to "every American."
The Declaration of Independence, he said, "are not simply words on aging parchment; they are the principles that define us as a nation -- the values we cherish as a people and the ideals we strive for as a society even as we know that we constantly have to work in order to perfect our union, and that work is never truly done."
Obama made special note of an individual member of each branch of the services, triggering enthusiastic applause.
The U.S. Marine Band entertained the crowd, who feasted on hot dogs, hamburgers, fried chicken, potato salad and corn on the cob. Children on hand played with hula hoops and balls and had their faces painted.
Lt. Col. Mike Schoonover of Bethesda, Md., who hoisted his 5-year-old daughter Elsbeth on his shoulders, got to shake hands with the president and called it a "once in a lifetime" experience.