Powerful inaugural address has message for everyone

Historians, speechwriters applaud delivery, language.

01/21/2009 2:15 AM

01/21/2009 2:17 AM

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama used his inaugural address to stake out a new moral high ground for America in the eyes of the world and to parlay his ascendance as America's first black president into a call for ethnic and religious unity.

"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," Obama said in one of the most sweeping passages of his 19-minute speech on Tuesday.

He predicted that "the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve, that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

In electing him, he said, America had "chosen hope over fear."

By turns an ode to optimism, a somber acknowledgment of harsh economic realities and an implicit rebuke to former President George W. Bush, Obama's address wove between demanding a new course for the United States and a reckoning for the policies of his predecessor.

"We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he said in one implicit criticism of Bush. He vowed to the world that "we are ready to lead once more."

One recurring theme was how difficult America's problems are, even as he vowed to tackle them: "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."

Referencing one of Paul's letters in the New Testament, Obama also observed that, "the time has come to set aside childish things." He said that Americans had put off unpleasant decisions for too long, and that the time has come to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

"What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them," Obama told a rapt audience that filled the National Mall. Speaking with a furrowed brow, he called for "a new era of responsibility."

He repeatedly spoke directly to the world abroad; indeed, he seemed to be speaking to the leaders of Iran, Venezuela and North Korea when he said of dictators: "You are on the wrong side of history," but added, "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

To terrorists: "We say to you that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

And to the Muslim world: "We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

Historians and speechwriters gave Obama high marks, both for his delivery and for the words of a text he shaped with help from his 27-year-old speechwriter, Jon Favreau, and his closest political adviser, David Axelrod.

Yet the experts said that Obama's address didn't have any single ringing line likely to echo down the halls of history, such as John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you" or Franklin D. Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Allan Lichtman, an American University historian, said that Obama borrowed imagery from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

"It was very much more of a historic sermon than a rally speech," Lichtman said. "It was an address that spoke to the moment, that was more than adequate for the history occasion, but it was not an address than will ascend to the cosmos of truly great American speeches."

Others were more generous.

"They always say there were three or four memorable inaugural addresses; I think this is going to be No. 5," said Gerald Shuster, a University of Pittsburgh professor who specializes in presidential rhetoric. "Not just because of the obvious of his being the first African-American president. He sets the tone and the pattern in a very specific way about what's to come and then establishes on all levels what we have to do to meet those objectives. He embodies the spirit of the future in this speech."

Clark S. Judge, managing director of the White House Writers Group Inc. and a former speechwriter and special assistant to President Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, was struck by how Obama mixed a critique of Bush with bipartisan courtship.

Obama, Judge said, "picked up themes from both parties in a way I found remarkable, themes of risk taking and entrepreneurship from the Republicans and the sense that we'll prevail in the war on terrorism."

He also chose bipartisan language to describe his approach to governance.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works," he said. "Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill," he continued, even as he said that "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control," a call for more efficient regulation.

Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, noted how Obama wove his own accomplishment into "the narrative about slaves, immigrants, western settlers, a progressive story about how the nation can improve."

Obama recalled how earlier Americans including those who "endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth" had built the nation.

"Let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled."

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