With popular backing and in clear defiance of the church, they pushed for mandatory sex education in schools, free distribution of contraceptives in public hospitals, and the right for transsexuals to change their official identities on demand. Argentina became the first nation in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriages.
Fernandez's slogan became "we're going for more."
Bergoglio responded in kind.
In last year's address, he said Argentina was being harmed by demagoguery, totalitarianism, corruption and efforts to secure unlimited power: a strong message in a country whose president has ruled by decree and left scandals unpunished.
"He's not looking for conflicts, but he doesn't avoid them. His language is direct and plain. From that perspective, he doesn't act like a diplomat," said Rosendo Fraga, an analyst with the New Majority consulting firm. "He knows how to conciliate, gather strength and look for meeting ground."
That's difficult in highly polarized Argentina. Gabriela Michetti, an opposition lawmaker who considers Francis her spiritual guide, said that every time he would speak about poverty, or the need to cool tempers, he was talking to all Argentines. But the Kirchners saw them as direct attacks.
"Kirchner branded him as the big opposing force, but Bergoglio didn't like that, because he wanted to be seen as a pastor and not a politician," Michetti said.
Others say Bergoglio was born for politics.
"Bergoglio likes politics more than 'dulce de leche' (Argentine caramel)," said Ignacio Fidanza, an analyst at lapoliticaonline.com.
"Bergoglio is always sending signals of an austere church, one that rejects ostentation, and he does it like politicians do it: through words and gestures, successfully, because his actions have an impact," Fidanza added.
Bergoglio is familiar with the Vatican's byzantine politics, having served in three important congregations since becoming a cardinal in 2001. But he seemed less than critical of its shortcomings, even after internal turf battles, intrigue and allegations of corruption emerged in leaked papal documents.
Those revelations featured heavily in the conclave. U.S. cardinals in particular insisted that the new pontiff must clean up the mess within the Vatican's own walls to restore credibility to the church as a whole.
Reforming the bureaucracy could make the Holy See more responsive to the needs of the church in the field and more governable at home. It now operates like a collection of independent fiefdoms, where the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing.
In a 2012 interview with veteran Italian Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli, Bergoglio acknowledged that the church is both "saint and sinner," but said one cannot allow the sins to overshadow "the saintliness of so many men and women who operate in the church."
It was a message not unlike his position on the church's actions during the Argentine junta's "dirty war," which has left the new pope open to criticism that he cares more about protecting the image of the church than exposing its failings.
"The Roman Curia has its defects," Bergoglio said, "but it seems that what is being highlighted is the bad and not the good being done by the lay and consecrated men and women who work there."
Associated Press writers Michael Warren and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.
Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao