Facing the largest and happiest crowd in national-capital history, Barack Obama opened his presidency with an eloquent and inspiring inaugural address in which he acknowledged he was taking the oath of office "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms."
With the markets falling even as he spoke, Obama showed the confidence and optimism that Americans expect of their presidents. The challenges we face are real and difficult, he said, but "they will be met."
But Obama also showed something else. On the campaign trail he often seemed conflict-averse, but in his first speech as president he showed more than a hint of steel and combativeness. The political opposition already beginning to quietly gather against some of his initiatives may find his appearance of calm moderation deceiving.
It is not reading too much into his words to see that this was a shot at congressional critics of the size of his stimulus plan, accusing them of lacking faith in the country: "Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system can’t tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done …"
And it is also not much of a stretch to understand that he will put his personal appeal, popularity and a political machine that remains largely intact to work supporting his policies. Thus, this warning: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."
By implication, Obama took several harsh shots at the departing Bush administration. Where science had been subservient to ideology, "We will restore science to its rightful place …" Where the Bush administration was notoriously secretive, his will "do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."
The Bush administration showed a chilling willingness to ignore or suspend the Constitution in pursuit of national security. Obama said, "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. … Those ideals still light the world and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake." While other nations accused George W. Bush of belligerence and arrogance in foreign policy, his own would exhibit "the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
The celebrants on the Mall were just happy to be present on an indubitably historic occasion, and it’s safe to say that many of them didn’t realize what a clear line Obama was drawing between himself and his predecessor and what a blunt warning he was issuing to those who might spurn his hand of bipartisan cooperation.