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What Lies Ahead for Obama -- And the Rest of the World

When the dust settles, Obama will begin the most difficult of tasks. Hope may not be enough.

With over a million exhilarated Americans filling the space between the civic shrines of the Capitol and the Washington Monument on the National Mall, President Barack Obama, in the first American inaugural address delivered by a black man, acknowledged the enthusiasm and hope he and his victory have inspired, but his speech was not overly celebratory. Instead, he attempted to guide the nation into what promises, due to circumstances heretofore beyond his control, to be a somber time and a trying presidency.

Underneath clear skies on a crisp, slightly-colder-than-usual day, the 44th president began, "I stand here today humbled by the task before us." He noted that he had just become one of the few presidents who takes office "amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." He outlined the obvious problems his administration faces: war, a weak economy (partly due to the "greed and irresponsibility" of "some"), job losses, businesses closed, homes lost, a broken health care system, and failing schools.

Vowing to meet these daunting challenges, the new president offered not policy details but, yes, hope. He praised the unsung workers (including slaves) of America's past, "obscure in their labor," who built this country. But, he added, the current challenges "will not be met easily or in a short span of time." He maintained that Americans "must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." And that renewal, he said, would demand "bold and swift" action, including the building of roads and bridges, electric grids and digital lines. It also would entail reforming health care, developing alternative energy, and revitalizing schools. He acknowledged this is a big job.

Obama portrayed his response to the moment at hand as ideology-free: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. 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 can try to depict his agenda as post-ideological, but these words do convey the opposite sentiment of Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." And Obama did challenge another fundamental precept of conservatism when he noted that the free market cannot always be trusted: "without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control." This was a speech of progressive notions -- without explicitly championing them.

Obama was obligatorily gracious toward his predecessor, thanking George W. Bush for his "service to our nation." (When Bush first appeared for the ceremony, parts of the audience sang, "Sha-na-na-nah, hey, hey, good-bye.") But Obama's speech contained significant jabs at the Bush-Cheney status quo he aims to undo. He pledged to "restore science to its rightful place." The audience applauded. Referring to "our common defense," Obama declared, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" -- a direct reference to Gitmo, torture, and the like. He added that the United States will not give up its ideals "for expediency's sake" and that everyone around the world should know that "we are ready to lead once more." The crowd cheered. Obama vowed to "responsibly leave Iraq to its people" and "forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan." (When Bush spoke at his second inauguration, he did not utter the words "Iraq" and "Afghanistan.") Obama said he would "work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet." (Bush spoke of neither threat in either of his two inaugural speeches.) And Obama was not shy in criticizing American self-absorption and over-consumption: "We can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our border, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect." In other words, it is time to end the complacency of the Bush-Cheney years.

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