Speech was no barn-burner, but it had shades of JFK and FDR

His 18-minute address was solid but not memorable

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The Gazette, Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Barack Obama knew the oath of office, even if John Roberts didn't.

Obama knew he would swear to "faithfully execute," not "execute faithfully" the office of president of the United States, as the chief justice recited it at yesterday's inauguration.

Obama stopped cold, wouldn't repeat it and waited for Roberts to correct himself, and repeat the oath properly.

Not only was Obama in the moment, he commanded the moment. Like the pivot man setting up the play in his favourite game of basketball, he held the ball until he could hit the open man.

But of course, he could also keep it, as he did, driving for the basket himself. His inaugural address was no spectacular three-pointer, but more like a layup for two.

The crowd, 2 million strong, stretched from the Lincoln Memorial two miles down the Mall to the steps of the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. It was Ronald Reagan who moved the inaugural ceremonies from the shaded East front to the present site in 1981. He wanted a ceremony that looked out over Washington's monuments and faced west to his home state of California.

There were two audiences, as they say in Rome, urbi et orbi, the city and the world.

Obama spoke to both in an 18-minute inaugural address that was solid but not memorable, by his own standards of Yes We Can rhetoric, or by the gold standards of excellence of presidential inaugurals.

"The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth," Obama declared. "We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together." Nobody's going to be carving those sentences at the base of Obama's statue one day. But he was delivering the broad outlines of an economic recovery program driven by great public-works projects.

But there was no "Ask Not" moment, no clarion call echoing John F. Kennedy in 1961. Nor was there a "Fear Itself" phrase that resonates across generations as Franklin Roosevelt's inaugural did in 1933.

But there was a direct echo of FDR in two senses: Obama's call to action and his declaration that the issue is "confidence."

That was an FDR leadership moment. In the face of all the news, of crashing markets, failing banks and shrinking consumption, Obama boldly declared that America will be back. "Today we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off," and not start all over again, but "begin again the work of remaking America." That won't be graven in stone, either. As to the sum of the daunting economic challenges he declared: "Know this America, they will be met." Those who doubt it, he said, "have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage." Now, that does have a ring to it.

Confidence was itself the central message of Obama's speech. That was the message to the city. The message to the world was that an era of exceptionalism in U.S. foreign policy is ending, and a new era of positive engagement has begun. This will be a welcome message in all foreign capitals in a world yearning for constructive U.S. leadership.

And in the foreign-policy section of the speech, there was a direct echo of JFK's inaugural, when Kennedy spoke "To those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves ... not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right."

Obama's father came from such a hut and village in Kenya, and yesterday his son, born in the year of Kennedy's inaugural, echoed the same theme of American engagement in the world: "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds." Kennedy's rhetoric gave birth to the Peace Corps. It was his call to a new generation of Americans to join in a public purpose.

Obama had his own moment at the end of his speech, not quite "Ask Not," but pretty compelling, when he spoke of "the price and promise of citizenship."

And there was no mistaking the personal reference when he spoke of himself as "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served lunch at local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

An oath whose 35 words he clearly knew by heart.

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