Obama's speech goes for prose instead of poetry.

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Jan. 20 2009 4:35 PM

What's New Is Old Again

Obama's speech goes for prose instead of poetry.

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US President Barack Obama speaks after being sworn in as the 44th US president. Click image to expand.
President Barack Obama speaks after being sworn in

On the west steps of the Capitol, Barack Obama turned his inaugural address into a national locker-room speech. Describing our current crisis and "a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable," he called on Americans to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." He called for "a new era of responsibility" founded on America's oldest virtues. "Those values upon which our success depends—hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

It was a good speech but not a soaring one. This may have been because Obama has given so many strong speeches, he's graded on his own special curve—or because he wanted the speech to be thoroughly conventional. His call to responsibility and sacrifice was rooted in American history—from the first settlers through the colonists to America's soldiers. This is a familiar theme in a political speech. In fact, Obama gave his own speech using these themes last June, in which he made a similar call to a new patriotism founded on sacrifice. The use of "I say to you" and "on this day" constructions added to the feeling that this was a speech of the usual order.

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Appealing to America's rich heritage makes Obama everyone's president, knitting him into the lineup of the 42 men who have come before him. (Obama is the 43rd man, not the 44th, because Grover Cleveland served as president No. 22 and president No. 24.) But it goes only so far in helping him with his speech's larger aim. His goal was to try to inspire us to give something up and reverse "our collective failure to make hard choices," which he says marked the responsibility-free era that created our current economic mess.

That kind of extraordinary call could have been helped by something more than historical analogies and drive-by references to brave firefighters. It required the kind of personal speechmaking Obama was so good at during the campaign. When he is at his most powerful, Obama makes you feel the connection with his message through either storytelling or references to his personal journey. His wife, Michelle, did the same thing during her convention speech by beautifully outlining how her father refused to give in to the pain and debilitation of multiple sclerosis. When things got hard, she said, "He just woke up a little earlier, and worked a little harder."

Instead of a personal story people could take home, Obama concluded his speech with the story of George Washington fighting for America's independence. It was a perfectly fine story, suitable for treatment in oil and fit for a gilt frame, but it's not a story that's likely to be retold tomorrow at the office.

Though the speech was familiar, there were some poetic high points. He talked about the "risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things," and as he spoke, his words echoed back to him from down the Mall, where they were being broadcast on giant televisions. He framed the new spirit of sacrifice we all must embrace by referring to the extraordinary selflessness of the military. This is a smart thing for a commander in chief to do, particularly one who was portrayed by his opponents as unpatriotic. And by putting out his familiar call for "a new era of responsibility," he has ensured that the phrase will be repeated throughout his tenure. And he hopes that the policies he will promise later, on everything from health care to entitlement reform, will become a part of the larger narrative of his presidency.

He was alternatively humble and commanding. He repudiated Bush's foreign policy. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama said. "Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake." He promised humility and restraint. But then, he tempered that new approach with a clear message to America's enemies: "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for 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." As he spoke, a fighter plane circled overhead, a tiny black spot against unspecific clouds.

How long Obama's words endure is a separate question from the enduring power of the inaugural moment. Though he never mentioned Martin Luther King Jr., Obama faced the Lincoln Memorial from where King articulated a dream that Obama is now helping to fulfill. That monument seemed brighter in the bitter cold, as did all the bleached white buildings that line the Mall. Between them jostled the millions of people who had come to hear and see him, their small American flags creating a blur of red, white, and blue among the museums and monuments.

Watch Obama's inaugural address:

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