Jan. 20, 2009— -- Barack Obama has now inherited the burdens of the presidency. Early in his inaugural address, he made it crystal clear that there are indeed burdens: "We are in the midst of a crisis. ... Our nation is at war. ... Our economy is badly weakened. ... Our health care is too costly. ... Our schools fail too many. ... The ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."
Obama did not stop there: "Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights."
Then, Obama made the turn from a cloudy future toward the sunlight: "The challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America, they will be met."
The brand-new president pointed to America's past as cause for hope for its future as he recalled the immigrants who built the nation and those who "fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh ...they saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction."
Well, what then about today's generations? Obama's answer: "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive. ... Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, that time has surely passed."
Then came what may prove to be one of the most oft-quoted sentences of his address: "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."
Obama Talks About Challenges in His Inaugural Speech
Obama comes to the nation's highest office at times that remind us of challenges facing other presidents who had to cope with hard economic conditions, especially Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But, where Reagan said government was a problem, a hindrance to recovery, Obama moved in another direction, the one associated with FDR and his New Deal.
Obama left no doubt that he would pursue an activist federal role "not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth." Liberals were cheered to hear him say, "There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."
But Obama also had words that may encourage centrists and perhaps some conservatives: "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."
To those beyond America's borders, Obama made this pledge: "From the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."
Addressing areas of conflict, he said: "We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. ..."
To the Muslim world, he said: "We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. ..." He had a message also for "leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West" and "to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclinch your fist."
To the people of poor nations, Obama "pledged to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds."
Obama's Message of Responsibility
As Obama came near to the end of his brief address, he emphasized his message of responsibility that his aides had said would be one of the most important themes. If some of this sounds similar to John F. Kennedy's exhortation in his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," it should come as no surprise. Obama said he consulted JFK's address among others, and that he found inspiration in it.
Here is how Obama put his call to the nation: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize grandly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and promise of citizenship."
America's first African-American president noted 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."
At his closing, Obama melded past with future, remembering the hardships endured by George Washington's troops "in the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river." He quoted Washington: "Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
For our present time Obama said: "In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."
Historians and pundits will now declare whether Obama's address met, exceeded or fell short of the high expectations so many had for it. But for the chilled thousands who braved this bright but wintry day, Obama's words were warming and welcoming.