The inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president spoke more eloquently about the promise of this country than anything he could have said Tuesday. But his inaugural address, though less poetic and less provocative than some of his speeches as a candidate, effectively sounded the theme that the country can rebound from its current economic crisis.
The speech exuded an optimism reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. "We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth," Obama said. "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished."
The speech was rescued from boosterism, however, by Obama's criticism of "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." In emphasizing responsibility and self-discipline, the president, paraphrasing St. Paul, said that "the time has come to set aside childish things." His prescription for renewal came from a Hollywood musical: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." In policy terms, Obama said that would mean an activist federal government, but one that will end ineffective programs.
The speech was less lyrical than Obama's election-night address in Chicago, which was memorably punctuated by the affirmation "Yes we can." It also lacked the astringent analysis of his speech last year about race, in which he insisted that the controversy over remarks by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. reflected "the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through." Those who complained that the address wasn't a "speech for the ages" may be correct; the compensation is that it was acutely attentive to the signs of the times.
That was true not only of passages about the economy but also of Obama's insistence that "America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace." Those words suggest that the new president wasn't intimidated by criticism during the campaign of his willingness to reach out to nations suspicious of U.S. intentions. Especially significant was this line: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
One curious note in Obama's speech was a line that could have come out of the mouth of George W. Bush: "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred."
Obviously, U.S. military forces are engaged in armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equally obviously, this nation faces a threat of more 9/11-style terrorism from Al Qaeda and its imitators. But the notion of an undifferentiated war on terror (or on "Islamic fascism") blinded the Bush administration to important nuances in global politics. Worse, it provided a rationalization for violations of human rights and alliances with unsavory foreign leaders that exacerbated anti-Americanism around the world. The new president, usually so careful in his choice of words, mustn't echo the oversimplifications of his predecessor.