In an inaugural address at once soaring in style and optimistic in tone, President Barack Obama kept the economy front and center, quickly making the case that tackling the country's deep economic problems would require both bold, immediate action and sweeping changes to the nation's infrastructure and its energy and health-care sectors.
Although he offered no new specifics, Obama cast the goals of the proposals he has been shaping in grand terms, promising to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories" and "wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs," according to prepared remarks.
Without pointing fingers too specifically, he briefly scolded potential opponents "who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans." He admonished that "their memories are short. For they 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."Question of Whether Government Works
Obama, who became the nation's 44th president and the first African American to hold the office, spoke to a crowd that stretched along the National Mall, essentially unbroken from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Generally good-natured despite temperatures in the mid-20s and the threat of snow, some toward the rear of the huge crowd sang "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye," an obvious reference to the end of the Bush Administration. They switched to chants of Obama's name as the introductions of other dignitaries dragged on.
The Reverend Rick Warren, a controversial and conservative evangelical minister whose position against gay rights drew protests from many more liberal Obama supporters, offered a largely nondenominational prayer, asking God for both forgiveness and guidance, but uncharacteristically invoking Jesus Christ only at the end and in personal terms.
Calling for an end to "stale political arguments," Obama laid the groundwork for what many predict will be an expansion of the federal government's efforts unseen for many generations.
"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," he said in prepared remarks. "Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end."The Common Good
Throughout, his tone was upbeat, promising that the nation could rise above its economic troubles and work through the threat of terror and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And while he touched on where the blame lies for the economy's crisis—speaking generally, as he has increasingly done since winning the Presidency on Nov. 4—he didn't dwell on it, declaring that the "question before us" is not "whether the market is a force for good or ill."
"Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control," Obama said in his remarks.
Obama also signaled an intent to follow through on campaign promises not to simply improve the economy, but also to try to ensure that its gains are felt by Americans both poor and wealthy. The country's economic success, he said, "has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart—not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."
In campaign speeches and, to some degree, in comments since his election, Obama showed little hesitation in blaming the Bush Administration for the country's ills. By contrast, in his inaugural address he didn't mention Bush directly, except to thank him at the beginning. And yet, in many ways, the speech was a veiled repudiation of the policies and approach of the Bush era.