With a host of near 2 million gathered on the Mall to see him sworn in, Barack Obama delivered an inaugural that was the antithesis of a rallying cry for the “it’s-our-turn!” faithful assembled below.
Rather, it was an admonition, a warning to the American people of the gravity of our condition, and an invitation of inclusion to that part of the nation that remains wary of Barack Obama.
Yes, there were reminders that he is our first African-American president. But this speech was not about the novelty of his race. It was about placing this 44th president in the tradition of all who have gone before — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK and — Ronald Reagan.
A first sign this was not to be another windy progressive spiel came with his statement that our crisis is due not just to the “greed and irresponsibility” of some, but to our own “collective failure to make hard choices.”
All of us are at fault, Obama was saying, in what became a stern and severe sermon to the nation.
“On this day we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. … In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
Citing St. Paul in First Corinthians, Obama cast himself in the role of one who speaks with authority, to demand of those he leads that they cease to act as children.
“In reaffirming our greatness as a nation,” we must remember who and what made us great. It was not those who “prefer leisure over work”; rather, it was “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.”
Pardon me, but this is neo-Reaganite.
For our liberty, said Obama, men like these “fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.”
This was startling. Mythologizing Khe Sanh, where the Marines held out against thousands of North Vietnamese in the bloodiest days of Vietnam, Obama was associating himself with the part of America that holds with Reagan that Vietnam was a “noble cause,” not the “dirty immoral war” of the left’s propaganda.
Obama seemed to be severing himself from Sen. McGovern, who diabolized the war, from John Kerry, who came home from Vietnam to say Americans were acting like war criminals, and from Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 called Vietnam a “racist war.”
Was President Obama saying the right was right? Perhaps not. But he was saying that the Marines at Khe Sanh and all of those who fought and died in Vietnam are to be honored alongside the men who stormed the bluffs at Pointe du Hoc.
“(O)ur power alone,” said Obama, “cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” Rather, “our power grows through its prudent use.” While a repudiation of neoconservatism, these ideas are fully consistent with the traditional conservatism of the Founding Fathers.
Proceeding on to the wars in which we are now engaged, the new president declared, “We’ll begin responsibly to leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”
That “hard-earned peace in Afghanistan” echoes Ike on Korea, 1953. And, “leave Iraq to its people” sounds like Nixon seeking “peace with honor” as he brought the 525,000 American soldiers home.
To implacable enemies like al-Qaida, Obama declared, “You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” But to authoritarian and dictatorial regimes with which we are not at war, he offered, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
This is not Winston Churchill’s “victory at all costs!” nor JFK’s “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe … .” Nor is it George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural “ending tyranny in our world.” It is rather the sober statement of a president who understands that his country, great as she is, is overextended and there needs to be a retreat from empire.
“As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which the nation relies,” said Obama, as he began to recite the values on which America depends, “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. … What is demanded … is a return to these truths.” Again, Reagan comes to mind.
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility, a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties … .”
None of this is to suggest the new president is some born-again conservative; and there is much in his speech to argue he is not.
But this inaugural was the work of a mature and serious man who knows his county is in deep water, who seems to understand what got us there and who appreciates that, on some things, the right has indeed been right from the beginning.