At midday Tuesday, Americans came together. From the multicolored sea of faces on the National Mall to crowds gathered around televisions across the country, the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president offered hope in a nation weary of war and staggered by economic crisis. Now the new president must marshal this renewed faith and thirst for change into a collective embrace of what he declared "a new era of responsibility.''
Obama's understated inaugural address did not sugarcoat the difficult issues facing the country. In what he called "this winter of our hardship,'' he eloquently linked the determination and sacrifices of previous generations to the commitment required from all of us to meet the tremendous challenges of today. It was a sober reminder of the values that carried America through crises of old and of the need now to recommit to a common sense of purpose.
Even as the president spoke of "reaffirming the greatness of our nation,'' there was no mistaking the message of change. There were pointed breaks with the outgoing administration. For example, the Bush White House had questioned the existence of global warming and preferred secrecy over transparency. Obama pledged to "restore science to its rightful place'' and to "do our business in the light of day.'' He also offered a powerful repudiation of accepting the erosion of civil liberties as the price of fighting terrorism. "As for our common defense,'' he said, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.''
The message to the world was similarly direct, lest anyone consider Obama's campaign emphasis on diplomacy to be a sign of weakness. He warned that America is still determined to defeat terrorists, but he also told the Muslim world "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.'' That is the sort of nuanced message that has been missing from the White House.
The speech's broader strokes reflected the campaign themes that attracted so many voters to Obama as a leader determined to break out of old boxes. He said the issues are not whether government is too big or too small, or whether the financial markets are "a force for good or evil.''
"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,'' Obama said.
Of course, the ground shifted Tuesday in even more fundamental ways. The nation's first African-American president spoke from a Capitol largely built by slaves, before a crowd of more than 1-million stretched nearly 2 miles along the National Mall braving below-freezing weather for hours. He used the Bible last used for a presidential swearing-in by Abraham Lincoln, and he recalled that restaurants in Washington would have refused to serve his father not so many years ago. They were subtle, light touches on a day when the weight of history loomed large.
Obama's inauguration was a proud moment for all of America, a reminder in so many ways of how far this nation has come even as it measures how far it has to go along the difficult road that lies ahead.