With over a million exhilarated Americans filling the space between the civic shrines of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, President Barack Obama, in the first American inaugural address delivered by a black man, acknowledged the enthusiasm and hope he and his victory have inspired, but his speech was not overly celebratory. Instead, he attempted to guide the nation into what promises, due to circumstances heretofore beyond his control, to be a somber time and a trying presidency.
Underneath clear skies on a crisp, slightly-colder-than-usual day, the 44th president began, "I stand here today humbled by the task before us." He noted that he had just become one of the few presidents who takes office "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." He outlined the obvious problems his administration faces: war, a weak economy (partly due to the "greed and irresponsibility" of "some"), job losses, businesses closed, homes lost, a broken health care system, and failing schools.
Vowing to meet these daunting challenges, the new president offered not policy details but, yes, hope. He praised the unsung workers (including slaves) of America's past, "obscure in their labor," who built this country. But, he added, the current challenges "will not be met easily or in a short span of time." He maintained that Americans "must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." And that renewal, he said, would demand "bold and swift" action, including the building of roads and bridges, electric grids and digital lines. It also would entail reforming health care, developing alternative energy, and revitalizing schools. He acknowledged this is a big job.
Obama portrayed his response to the moment at hand as ideology-free: "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. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works--whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified." Obama can try to depict his agenda as post-ideological, but these words do convey the opposite sentiment of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." And Obama did challenge another fundamental precept of conservatism when he noted that the free market cannot always be trusted: "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." This was a speech of progressive notions--without explicitly championing them.