President Barack Obama offered an implicit acknowledgment in his inaugural speech that the United States has made mistakes and will change course. On the economy, on energy policy, on the rule of law in the fight against terror, and on the international stage, he sketched a template for change.
His rhetoric did not soar. It was (apart from a couple of lively metaphors and a striking verb or two) a prosaic speech fitted not to the momentous occasion, but to the many urgent tasks at hand, the oration of a practical, pragmatic man. “For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.” And now, America, to work.
For sustained flights of rhetoric in an inauguration, look back no further than the previous two, from George W. Bush. “We will build our defences beyond challenge, lest our weakness invite challenge,” he said in 2001.
Mr. Obama broke with this recent past. Earlier generations “understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please,” he said. “Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use.” He is a globally aware man, and speaks to the world in a way that few other presidents have.
The mistakes he cited, indirectly, begin with those affecting the economy. He did not merely point at “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some,” but went on to a far broader responsibility: “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
On energy he was similarly blunt: “The ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
And on law and liberties: “The choice between safety and ideals is a false one.”
Mr. Obama praised the market for its unmatched “power to generate wealth and expand freedom,” as long as it is under “a watchful eye,” to prevent it from spinning out of control. He seemed to imply both that Americans need to live within their means and should resist lowering their sights. He caught the spirit of the times when he said that Americans fear their country is in decline.
The inaugurations have no counterpart in Canadian life. They are quasi-religious occasions, a state renewing its story at four-year intervals, grounding that renewal in the wisdom of its founders and in its always-invoked connection to God. This was no ordinary inauguration, and schoolchildren in Canada and elsewhere watched it live.
What they saw was the first black U.S. president, a leader who is cool – in more than one sense – and in control. It was, in sum, a cautiously hopeful speech well-suited to anxious times.