An Auspicious Inaugural

Obama’s somber address gives hope that he’ll be able to navigate these troubled waters and lead America to a better place.

Barack Obama's inaugural address was an exercise in self-restraint that the United States sorely needed. Obama did not make soaring promises about reviving the American economy overnight. He did not say that the United States would liberate the rest of the world. Though the crowd adulated Obama, he did not bask in its adulation. He did not, you might say, celebrate his celebrity. Instead, he delivered a stern lesson with the promise of better times ahead if the nation can discipline itself.

The contrast between the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama one could thus have not been more striking. Four years ago, George W. Bush out-Wilsoned Woodrow Wilson in his second inaugural, essentially pledging to end tyranny wherever it might exist or, as David Frum and Richard Perle put it in their book, "An End to Evil." Now, Vice President Dick Cheney, the animating spirit of the Bush presidency, exited in a wheelchair, as enfeebled and prostrated as the administration that he helped destroy. Bush himself, appearing dazed and confused, barely seemed aware of what was occurring as his youthful successor delivered a lecture that his profligacy had rendered mandatory.

Obama's remarks about foreign affairs, by contrast, were noteworthy for their sobriety. America, Obama announced, "must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace." Obama sounded a familiar theme when he stated, "Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint." Exactly. The swaggering braggadocio of the past eight years boomeranged, creating the very coalition of antagonists that realist thought had predicted. Obama wants to unravel it by making American an example to the world, not a hectoring bully. Damascus and Tehran must realize that their salad days of profiting from America's PR missteps are coming to an end.

Obama's speech was also old-fashioned both in its cadences and themes. It looked to the past for guidance. "The quiet force of progress" that Obama invoked was based on something more than the superficial ethos that the Bush administration personified. Obama didn't use the word, but he was talking about virtue. Obama thus called for sacrifice, a word Bush shunned. It wasn't a day for policy specifics, but if anyone has a chance of pushing for real reform on Social Security and a host of other seemingly intractable issues, it would seem to be Obama. By invoking George Washington, Obama seemed to suggest that if America can navigate the icy rapids that threaten to submerge it, then it can emerge into a bright and safe sunlit harbor of hope.

And yet, perhaps the Obama presidency will end in tears. Writing in the London Telegraph, Gerald Warner observes,

It is questionable whether the present political system can survive the coming crisis. Whatever the solution, teenage swooning sentimentality over a celebrity cult has no part in it. The most powerful nation on earth is confronting its worst economic crisis under the leadership of its most extremely liberal politician, who has virtually no experience of federal politics. That is not an opportunity but a catastrophe.

It's useful to remember that the Kennedy administration began with soaring rhetoric-which Obama wisely avoided-and that the "best and the brightest" plunged the country into Vietnam. It's easy enough to construct a scenario in which Obama, for all his oratorical gifts, stumbles badly. Much of the chaos might not even be Obama's fault. Afghanistan goes belly-up. The economy tanks completely. Israel nukes Iran, which bombards the Persian Gulf, sending oil prices soaring. China collapses. And so on.

Still, Obama's measured approach could pay big dividends. It takes a great crisis to produce an even greater president. Obama has the opportunity to create what amounts to a new American revolution, resurrecting American technological and economic prowess. The United States has been written off before and rebounded. It's permissible to have a pinch of hope that the competence embodied by Obama will provide a firm foundation for reviving the promise of American life. His inaugural speech offered a promising start. Now the commander in chief needs to start commanding.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.