National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: President Obama’s Inaugural Speech

Some people are clearly far more able to “be in the moment” than I often am, even as much as I try to, and even remind others to be.

But the epochal wallop to the emotional and psychic solar plexus of the nation and the world, myself included, represented by Tuesday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama Tuesday is so overwhelming that, while its impact may be approximated formally or intellectually, its power will be fully felt only over time.

Drawing simply from the words of President Obama’s Inaugural Address, the totality of such a profound sea change in American culture and aspirations is stunning.

It’s one thing for candidate Obama to say things like he did Tuesday. It’s another thing for nominee Obama to say them. It’s still another for President-elect Obama to say them. But it’s another thing entirely for President Obama to say them.

Presidents of the United States are often most remembered for their Inaugural Addresses, and despite those who argue that President Obama lowered his own expectations for greatness in this speech, I think that over time, it will grow into stature as one of the greatest ever.

It had all of the moral suasion of President Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech of 1960, even without a one-line phrase that is easy to memorize and repeat. By contrast to the last 30 years of national greed and religious hypocrisy, it called for a new morality.

Coming as a necessary and beneficent deep change in the direction of the nation, it called out to the nation, to its allies, to its enemies, to all who stand in need of succor and hope, for becoming players in “a new era of responsibility.”

In its only quote from religious traditions, the speech called to “set aside childish things” but instead “to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation, the God given promise that all are created equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Later, it said, “The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart – not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

It went on, “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more… Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.”

To the nation’s enemies, the speech said, to “Those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you… People will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

To the world’s poor, the speech pledged “to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds,” adding, “We can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders.”

For these aspirations, the speech called upon “the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job…the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke…a parent’s willingness to nurture a child.”

The values upon which our success depends, it said, are “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism…the quiet force of progress throughout our history.”

President Obama spoke these words, noting himself as “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant” who “can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

This is the new morality for a new age, rooted on the old morality that founded and built the country. It has been reclaimed by no less than the President of the United States from the shallow, hypocritical “purists” of the right wing, and when coupled with contents on the new White House website, especially what it says about civil rights, is a deeply penetrating clarion call for a new future.