Addressing the nation he now leads Tuesday, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama didn’t minimize the many challenges facing the United States.
He acknowledged those challenges but used his speech to bolster the nation’s confidence and resolve. He reminded Americans of where we’ve been and the troubled times we have survived before. He reminded Americans who we are: a resilient people, held together by the strength of our ideals.
Obama’s reputation as a gifted speaker set expectations for his speech at a perhaps unattainable level. Some observers expressed disappointment that Obama’s inaugural address didn’t measure up to the eloquence of some of his campaign speeches.
It’s true that, at least on the same day as the speech, it was impossible to identify the enduring quote that would match John F. Kennedy’s challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you …” Nonetheless, Obama touched on several themes that may inspire and reassure Americans in the years to come.
He acknowledged the bravery of America’s founders and the service of those who have fought, and sometimes died, on Americans’ behalf. He extolled the creativity and productivity of the American people whose “ideals still light the world.”
To those watching around the world, he sent a message that was determined, even defiant, telling his audience “… we reject the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
To “those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents,” Obama continued, “we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
To “leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West,” he offered both a warning and an olive branch: “… 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.”
America’s orderly transfer of power, repeated again on Tuesday, is a wonder in itself. Political enemies share the same stage; incoming leaders thank outgoing leaders. Just as those leaders put their differences aside for the greater good of the country, Obama asked the nation to “proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises” and, referring to Scripture, implored people to “set aside childish things” and carry forth the noble ideas that have made America great.
One speech, of course, doesn’t make a president. Inspiring a nation with words is not without value, but it is relatively simple compared with the business of governing. However, during a time when deep challenges might have made America lose faith in itself, Obama’s promise that those challenges “will be met” sends a message of encouragement that many Americans needed to hear.