A forceful way forward

A FORCEFUL WAY FORWARD…. The president’s inaugural address ended less than an hour ago, and thoughtful and thorough scrutiny will take a long while. But my initial reaction is that this was a dense and powerful speech, and a more forceful rejection of the status quo than I’d expected.

Early on, President Barack Obama (I still take some pleasure in typing that) acknowledged the peril of the times, but reminded Americans that conditions will improve in time.

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence 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. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

“These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. 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.

Today I say to you that 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. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord…. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Soon after, Obama presented an ambitious agenda, and then defended the notion of ambition itself.

“Now, 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.

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.”

But it seemed the portion of the speech that resonated most was an implicit celebration of civil liberties, even in a time of crisis.

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, 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.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

I didn’t see George W. Bush’s face at the time, but the new president’s remarks were a rather specific rejection of the most recent president’s entire worldview.

Obama went on to deliver a message to the world about America’s place in it.

“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.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

Looking over my notes, I noticed that there was some enthusiastic applause — both in my house and on the Mall, when Obama noted, almost in passing, “We will restore science to its rightful place.” It was also encouraging when Obama, in addressing America’s spiritual diversity, gave a shout-out to non-believers. Nice touch.

I suspect a lot of observers watch a speech like this, waiting for “the phrase.” FDR had “nothing to fear…” and JFK had “ask not….” To a lesser extent, Clinton told us that “what is right with America” can solve its ills, and Reagan identified government as “the problem.”

Did Obama offer that short, memorable phrase, which will be talked about for generations? Perhaps not. I was struck by Obama’s allusion to Corinthians: “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” That said, it was not a sound-bite line, for those looking for one.