As specified by the Constitution, Obama officially became the President of the United States at 12:00 PM, though the Oath of Office was not administered by Chief Justice John Roberts until a few minutes later. Roberts and Obama each botched a few words of the oath—both visibly excited and nervous.
Before the oath, popular Pastor Rick Warren gave the Invocation Prayer. Many gay rights activists had protested his selection due to his opposition to same-sex marriage. Warren’s prayer, however, did not address the issue, but rather stressed unity across faiths. He invoked the name of Jesus to “give us clarity in these difficult days.” He then finished by reciting the “Our Father” prayer.
Obama’s speech took on a noticeably different tone from the rallying campaign rhetoric he relied on throughout the 2008 election. This address did not have any striking phrases or calls to action, nor did it cause the audience to regularly erupt in applause. Indeed, though many expected a soaring, inspirational speech akin to the Inaugural Addresses delivered by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, there was little in Obama’s oration that will be quoted by future generations.
Obama instead gave a somber outline of the challenges that lie ahead. On a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Index dropped below 8,000, Obama acknowledged the present economic challenges and called for bold public spending to help get past the crises. Obama reaffirmed faith in the free-market, but did so in a qualified way, carefully noting that it needed a “watchful eye” and could not be allowed to “spin out of control.” Addressing concerns of growing inequality, he said, “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”
Obama also alluded to coming infrastructure projects. With the assistance of Congressional Democrats, he is currently arranging for the passage of an estimated $825 billion economic stimulus package, at a time when the Congressional Budget Office already estimates a $1.2 trillion deficit for 2009. But while he did not go so far as to vow a balanced budget, he did hint that some government programs must end. Such cuts will be made, however, not because of a faith in limited governance, but on the basis of utility. In an apparent challenge to Reaganism, which declared that “government is the problem,” Obama instead said, “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 also vowed to address energy policy, science and technological development, and to improve public education. In many ways, the speech’s sobriety contrasted starkly with the enthused masses that showed up in droves.
The overall tone of the speech indicated that America must be prepared for hard work and sacrifice, both at home and abroad. Alluding to the challenges faced by the Founding Fathers, Obama called on Americans to show tenacity in these difficult times and thus deliver “freedom to future generations.” In a direct message to terrorists, Obama declared “We say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” He also pledged to “responsibly leave Iraq… and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”
Given Obama’s history of memorable speeches, this address will probably not be remembered as his best. Still, it was well-spoken and well-delivered, while simultaneously demonstrating that its speaker understood the gravity of the moment.
The heart of Obama’s message was found in his conclusion: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” But in order to reach that goal, both President Obama and the American people will need to remember Tuesday’s sobering remarks, and show the appropriate resolve.