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John Ibbitson’s America

A stern message of reform, but will it be heeded?

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

WASHINGTON — In a stern address that was more sermon than speech, U.S. President Barack Obama called on Americans Tuesday to redeem their republic.

Throughout the 18½ uncompromising minutes of his inaugural address, Mr. Obama blamed his country's economic malaise on “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” He transformed an election campaign based on hopeful change into an administration calling for change through sacrifice.

As could be expected from this writer president, there were moments of great beauty. Imagine the last time a president invoked such formal, powerful language: “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 some day pass; 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.”

Soaring stuff, although the speech lacked, perhaps deliberately, a “with malice toward none,” “the only thing we have to fear” or “ask not what your country” to ring down the ages.

That may be because Mr. Obama wanted to use his inaugural address to bring people down to earth, to remind them of the difficulties and the immensity of the task ahead.

“Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered,” Mr. Obama declared, as he recited a litany of ills that beset America. “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.”

Worse still, he warned of “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.” Even Jimmy Carter, in the depths of the oil and hostage crises, wasn't this grim.

But there was method to this jeremiad. Mr. Obama enjoys unprecedented support, evidenced both by his sky-high approval ratings and the throng that filled the National Mall.

The new President clearly hopes and believes he can harness that national consensus behind a program to restore economic health and fiscal balance.

Recovery is possible, he maintained, only if the nation chooses union over faction, and the national interest over self-interest.

Quoting that often-grim apostle, Paul, Mr. Obama called on Americans “to set aside childish things”: the years of careless debt and wasteful spending.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” the President said, “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

In essence, he was telling his people that it was time to grow up.

There were moments of tenderness, with Mr. Obama invoking his biracial past as a metaphor for the progress of African Americans through decades of struggle, from the stench of segregation to the celebration of America's first African American president.

“This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed,” he told the vast crowd before him, “why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

But there were hard words as well. Mr. Obama did not spare former president George W. Bush, who listened impassively as the new President declared: “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The freedoms enshrined in the American Constitution by the founding fathers, he said, “still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”

But lest America's enemies abroad misinterpret those words as a weakening of resolve, the 44th President offered them a Draconian warning: “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence.

“And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

To the Muslim world he proposed “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” While “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.”

But it was not the words on foreign policy, finely crafted though they were, for which the speech will be remembered, but rather its call to service at home, enshrined in the address's final, soaring invocation.

“With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come,” the new President concluded. “Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Mr. Obama's presidency will be defined by the degree to which the American people and the United States Congress answer or reject that call. We know what Mr. Obama wants: regulatory reform of the market; massive reinvestments to end the recession and restore competitiveness; root-and-branch reform of entitlements to restore fiscal order.

But Mr. Obama knows that such changes come with higher taxes, reduced benefits and longer hours, for few short-term rewards.

Previous presidents have attempted such reforms; all have failed. This President is hoping that the people, galvanized by his election and terrified by the depth of this recession, will accept now what they have rejected so many times before.

“God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny,” Mr. Obama told the American people. This new President is supremely confident that he can shape that destiny to America's will.

The world watches.

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