Obama broke abruptly from the giddy celebratory mood of the crowds that overfilled the National Mall to deliver a stern and sobering message: The nation's challenges "are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short period of time, but know this, America: They will be met."
He didn't congratulate Americans for electing him; he warned them, instead, that he will demand "a new era of responsibility." He paused only briefly to acknowledge the racial progress that made his ascent possible. Instead, his main message was: We are in the moral equivalent of war, and now is the time for all good citizens to come to the aid of their president.
That's why he echoed the words of war presidents who took office during earlier national crises: Abraham Lincoln ("amidst gathering clouds and raging storms") and FDR ("the state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift"). As if the Civil War and the Depression weren't crises enough, he reached back to George Washington and Thomas Paine pleading with the soldiers of the Continental Army not to leave in December 1776, when all appeared lost.
Part of this was basic political strategy. Aides say he knows public expectations are unrealistically high, and he needs to make sure voters understand that economic recovery won't come easily or soon. "Our economy is badly weakened," Obama said, "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to prepare the nation for a new age."
He wants Americans on board as he prepares to ask a lot of the political system in a very short time. He wants quick passage of an economic stimulus package that started at $775 billion and is still growing. He wants authority to direct many of those dollars plus $350 billion from the Treasury's bailout fund wherever his economic advisors see fit. He wants Congress to pass a comprehensive national health reform plan, something no Congress has done. And he wants to tackle the financial problems of Medicare and Social Security right after that.
"Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans," he said, accurately. "Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done."
Obama did not mention (and did not need to, for the members of Congress on the west portico already know) that to pass his ambitious plan, he intends to do something both FDR and Ronald Reagan did: harness public opinion to put pressure on Congress. FDR used radio, Reagan used television, and Obama is using the giant e-mail list of supporters compiled in his campaign. As long as his approval rating holds at its current stratospheric levels (79% in the last Times-Bloomberg poll), he has a shot at achieving much of his wish list.
But Obama says he wants to do even more: He wants to change the basic tone of American politics. "On this day, we come to an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics," he said. "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. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
Obama knows that, like Lincoln and FDR, he will be judged on the results of his responses to the nation's crisis, on "whether it works."
The ambitions he outlined on Tuesday were audacious in their scale -- not only organizing an economic recovery but also remaking major parts of the federal government and banishing cynicism from national politics. Any president who can get all that done will deserve being compared to those giants.