Obama Asks Nation to Rise to the Challenge of His Words
Tuesday, January 20, 2009; 2:51 PM
In the inaugural address launching his presidency, Barack Obama today drew on his sense of history and the needs of the moment -- the same strengths that shaped the speeches that propelled him from obscurity to the White House in four years.
In his very first sentence, Obama cited "the sacrifices borne by our ancestors" and said the confidence he feels in the face of two wars and the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century rests on Americans remaining "faithful to the ideals of our forbearers and . . . our founding documents."
More than most politicians, Obama has relied on his formal speeches to power his ambitious career. Today's address -- much of which he wrote himself -- signaled a sharp break with the domestic and national security policies of the Bush administration and a reaffirmation of Obama's main campaign themes.
As in his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech that lifted the young Illinois state senator from obscurity, and in the Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Dinner speech that launched his first national campaign, Obama said he and his nation had "chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
Those words -- hope and unity -- have been the consistent keynotes of his political rhetoric. They now will be tested in the toughest of crucibles, as he confronts a deeply anxious nation that has attached its hopes strongly to him.
In turn, Obama was at pains in this somber inaugural to turn the burden back to them. "For as much as government can do and must do," Obama said, "it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."
"What is demanded," he said, is a return to the old virtues and values -- "hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism."
In the few substantive passages in the speech, Obama signaled the change from the Bush administration. Alluding to the almost-trillion-dollar stimulus package he outlined to Congress even before he took the oath, he called for "bold and swift" action to stop the slide in jobs, manufacturing and housing. He also alluded to new initiatives, not yet specified, in energy, education, health care and technology.
Turning to national security, Obama rejected Bush's contention that the terrorist threat necessitated some sacrifice of privacy and civil liberties, saying, "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals . . . . Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
The biggest and most obvious change that Obama represents went almost unmentioned by him: the fact that he is the first African American or mixed race man ever elected president. He noted the uniqueness of the fact that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
But as was the case in his campaign, Obama did not identify himself as "the black candidate for president" and he cast his appeal broadly, not toward a targeted audience.
In the one major speech of that campaign devoted to race, a March 18 address in Philadelphia designed to get him safely past the controversy stirred by the angry words of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama asserted "a firm conviction . . . that, working together, we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds and that, in fact, we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union."
He told his minority constituents that "it also means binding our particular grievances, for better health care and better schools and better jobs, to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who's been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family."
Obama never has lost sight of that larger constituency, which is why he was able to establish his candidacy in the unlikely locus of overwhelmingly white and largely rural Iowa. In the Jefferson-Jackson speech that keyed his victory there, he made not one reference to his own race.
In Philadelphia, Obama also addressed the theme of personal responsibility that he returned to for the inaugural. Then he said that "taking full responsibility for our own lives [means] demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism, they must always believe."
Echoing not only his own earlier words but a major theme of President George W. Bush's inaugural, he called Tuesday for "a new era of responsibility."
For his peroration, Obama turned back to the first president, quoting George Washington's words from the winter of Valley Forge, when "nothing but hope and virtue could survive."
"With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come," he said. It was the bookend to the closing words in Boston more than four years ago, when he invoked "Hope -- hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope."
What speeches can accomplish, they have delivered handsomely for Barack Obama. Now, it will depend on his deeds.