Though couched in indirect terms, Barack Obama’s inaugural address was a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush and a vow to drive the United States into “a new age” by reclaiming the values of an older one.
It was a delicate task, with Bush and the former vice president, Dick Cheney, sitting feet from Obama as he described the false turns and the roads not taken. In his words, Obama blamed no one other than the country itself — “our collective failure to make hard choices” and a willingness to suspend national ideals “for expedience’s sake.”
Yet every time Obama urged Americans to “choose our better history,” to make decisions according to science instead of ideology, to reject a “false choice” between safety and American ideals, to recognize that American military power does not “entitle us to do as we please,” he signaled a commitment to pragmatism not just as a governing strategy but as a basic value.
It was, in many ways, exactly what one might have expected from a man who propelled himself to the highest office in the land by denouncing where an excess of ideological zeal has taken the nation. But what was surprising about the speech was how much Obama dwelled on America’s choices at this moment in history, rather than the momentousness of his ascension to the presidency.
Much as he did during his campaign, he barely mentioned his race in his first moments as the 44th president of the United States. He did not need to. The surroundings said it all as he stood on the steps of a Capitol built by the hands of slaves, and as he placed his hand on the Bible last used by the Great Liberator.
He talked instead, with echoes of Churchill, of the challenges of taking command of a nation beset by what he called “gathering clouds and raging storms.” And as a student of past inaugural addresses, he knew what he needed to accomplish. He had to evoke the clarion call for national unity that Lincoln made the centerpiece of his second inaugural in 1865. He had to instill the sense of optimism and patience that resounded in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural in 1933, as the nation confronted the worst moments of the Great Depression. And finally, he needed to recall the combination of national inspiration and resoluteness that John F. Kennedy delivered from the same spot, six months before Obama was born.
As his voice and image tripped down the Mall, Obama spoke across many generations stretched to the Washington Monument and beyond. Mixed in the crowd were the last remnants of a World War II generation, the Tuskeegee Airmen among them, for whom Jim Crow was such a daily presence that this day seemed unimaginable.
His appearance on the Capitol steps was so historic that the address became larger than its own language, more imbued with meaning than anything he could say.
And yet what he did say must have come as a bit of a shock to Bush, who knew his policies had been widely criticized, yet rarely over the past eight year had to sit in silence listening to a speech about how America had taken a tragic detour.
It was Bush, in 2004, who vowed repeatedly that it was his job “to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations.” Yet there was Obama, blaming America’s economic peril to an era “of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” He talked of how “the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet,” an implicit critique of an administration that went to war but did little to change America’s habits.