Hard Truths at The Outset

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The great danger for Barack Obama, with his natural charm and grace, is that he will try to please everyone. But he began his presidency with no glad hands -- avoiding the easy applause lines and instead telling people things they might not want to hear.

The new president opened his inaugural address by reminding us how bad things are. He spoke not of sunny skies and amber waves but of "gathering clouds and raging storms."

And he told us that it was partly our fault. The economic crisis wasn't just a result of "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some" but a consequence of "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

We all know the Pogo line about how "we have met the enemy, and he is us." Obama implicitly seemed to embrace it. We have been an immature country; we want things that are in conflict. We favor lower taxes and more services; we want balanced budgets and more spending on entitlements. We want progress, so long as it doesn't threaten the status quo.

Obama broke with this politics of immobilism: "Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed."

Obama's speech showed us, once again, that the new president really means it when he says that he wants to create a new kind of politics for a "postpartisan" America. This has been difficult for some of his supporters to accept, in their rage against the Bush presidency and their understandable desire to settle scores with those who took the country into a dark and painful time. But Obama wants none of it. "On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." Did that cause a moment of self-reflection at Rush Limbaugh's offices, or at the Daily Kos? I doubt it, but one can always hope.

The message to the world was similarly blunt. Here, again, Obama avoided the easy grace notes and told people some hard truths. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," he said. That was precisely the right message. Obama's presidency won't be about sweet talk and mediation; we aren't going to sing "Kumbaya" around a global campfire. The dialogue will be about interests. That's the kind of negotiation that the cunning bargainers of Damascus and Tehran understand, and it's the right starting point.

Obama challenged the boasters and the ranters of the Middle East -- those who would rather destroy lives than lose face -- to a new test: "Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." That goes to the heart of the political sickness in the Middle East today, afflicting Arabs and Israelis alike.

And for the corrupt but friendly oligarchs "on the wrong side of history" -- Obama offered a path out: "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Gently said, with none of the battering-ram insistence that marred the Bush administration's promotion of democracy.

I especially liked Obama's message to terrorist adversaries of the United States -- people who believe that his election was a sign that the United States has gone soft; people who remain convinced that the decadent West is losing, and that they are winning. "For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

It was a plain speech, like those of early American presidents, better savored in the reading than in the listening. The new president didn't pull out the rhetorical stops; he didn't try to score points. He just told the truth -- including the hard parts -- about where the country is and where it needs to go. He could not have said it more clearly:

"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply." Like Aretha Franklin's, voice rich with joy and pain, like the haunting music of John Williams played by a quartet drawn from the four corners of the Earth, like nearly everything about this day, that was just right.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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