America made history Tuesday; Barack Obama promised more in a sober, almost anti-heroic inaugural that sought to shift the focus back onto the people he must now lead in “this winter of our hardship.”
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” Obama said from the West Front of the Capitol. “There are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. ... The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works.”
With a cheering crowd estimated at more than 1 million and Lincoln’s Memorial in the distance, Obama — the nation’s first African-American president — could scarcely ignore his own place in the drama. “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed,” he said. “Why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you and take a most sacred oath.”
But after days of celebration, the new president seemed eager to get on to the grittier business of what is a time of great peril — and renewal — for the nation he will lead.
Six Cabinet secretaries were confirmed hours after his swearing-in. His $825 billion economic recovery plan begins moving through House committees Wednesday; Treasury nominee Timothy Geithner faces Senate questioning then as well on the banking crisis.
The problems ahead are so staggering that even a man as businesslike as Obama invoked God calling “on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” His voice seemed hesitant at the outset of his speech, and frustration showed itself when he spoke of past errors that had brought the nation to this economic brink — “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
The collapse later of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) added to the sober mood.
But Obama, forever the community organizer, finds his great strength in the people he energized in this election — and who now energize him. The crowd itself became almost a second star in the event, and a row of recording artists, accustomed to being the center of attention, stood on their chairs at the Capitol to take pictures.
“The depth of the moment is described by the people beyond these halls,” Obama would tell a Capitol luncheon later in Statuary Hall. “What’s happening today is not about me. It is about the American people. They understand that we have arrived at a moment of great challenge for our nation. ... They are demonstrating a readiness to answer history’s call.”
Evoking John F. Kennedy and to some degree his old rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama came back to the theme of service.
“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,” Obama said. Time and again, he sought to tap into the sense of community among earlier generations of everyday Americans, “obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.”
“For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West: endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth,” Obama said. “For us they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.”
Obama’s chosen poet, Elizabeth Alexander, picked up on the same theme in her reading.
“Sing the names of the dead who have brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and lettuce,” Alexander read. “In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.”
Obama’s team has sought to link this theme — a “new era of responsibility” — with Kennedy’s inaugural address a half-century ago. But it may be more revealing to track the two addresses on foreign policy, where Obama’s whole tone seems a far cry from Kennedy’s celebrated Cold War vow to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” — a vow that helped lead the U.S. into Vietnam soon after.
By contrast, after the Bush years and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Obama seemed more intent on projecting openness to the world. He alluded to the small village where his father was born in Africa. And introduced at the podium as Barack H. Obama, he took his oath as Barack Hussein Obama.
“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,” Obama said. And in a direct appeal to the Muslim world, he said, “We seek as new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
In fact, for all his preoccupation with the economic troubles at home, Obama seemed intent on using the speech to project himself overseas. And in many ways, these were his strongest lines — and his richest use of the imagery surrounding his historic election.
“Because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve,” Obama said.
“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 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 unclench your fist.”