Obama's Inaugural Speech Analyzed E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post says President Barack Obama's speech marked a break with a lot of thinking since Ronald Reagan became president. David Brooks of The New York Times says Obama's speech represented the renunciation of a whole political era.
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Obama's Inaugural Speech Analyzed

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Obama's Inaugural Speech Analyzed

Obama's Inaugural Speech Analyzed

Obama's Inaugural Speech Analyzed

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E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post says President Barack Obama's speech marked a break with a lot of thinking since Ronald Reagan became president. David Brooks of The New York Times says Obama's speech represented the renunciation of a whole political era.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, to our two regular political observers, David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And I'd like to begin by continuing a conversation that the two of you had earlier today. You heard the Obama speech, and you heard different President Obamas emerge from that speech. David Brooks, what did you hear? You heard a pragmatist.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah, well, I remember interviewing him a couple of years ago, walking out thinking, you know, he agrees with everything I think. And I'm sure E.J. could have had the same reaction. And after the speech today I went on the Web site of the New Republic, a liberal magazine, and I found some pieces that were very laudatory and some that were very negative. Then I went to the National Review site, a very conservative magazine, and some pieces loved the speech, thought it was one of the greatest speeches ever. Some thought it was flat. So everyone gets to have their own private Obama. And my Obama - the Obama I thought I heard was one who had a wintry version of what's wrong with America, which is, we have been making tough choices. We've been irresponsible. And he struck that theme and said it's time to put away childish things. And to me, that's a renunciation of a whole political era - an era of old debates, of big government vs. small government, and really the emergence of what he hopes is a post-baby-boomer pragmatism.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne, you heard a bit of the return of FDR in this speech.

Mr. DIONNE: I did, indeed. I was very struck by a couple of passages and how much they represented a break, yes, with stale arguments, as he put it and as David suggested, but also a break with a lot of the thinking since Ronald Reagan became president. On the economy, he actually asked the question, is the market a force for good or ill - not even a question that has come up much until, say, the last six months. And he acknowledged the market's power to generate wealth and expand freedom. But he also said that without a watchful eye the market can spin out of control, and we cannot prosper if it only favors the prosperous. That's a very progressive thought, and there is clearly an indication of a new foreign policy, and I think a pretty sharp, though indirect, critique of President Bush when he said that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. He called for humility and restraint. So I think this is very much a break with the recent conservative past. Yes, there's a lot of pragmatism here, but if I may paraphrase Barry Goldwater, pragmatism in pursuit of progressive goals is no vice.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, I wonder. When you heard President Obama raise the question about the market and acknowledge its power to generate wealth, is he in that instance just communicating to conservatives, I understand your ideas? I disagree with them in the end, but I understand your ideas.

Mr. BROOKS: No, I really don't think so. I mean, we need - the market generates wealth, we need some regulatory structure to keep it under control. I think everybody on earth this side of Ayn Rand believes that. I certainly believe it. There is certainly nothing I would disagree with. I suspect if you took the Republicans on Capital Hill, with a few exceptions, none of them would disagree with that. The question is in the pragmatics and how you actually play out the regulatory structure. And on that, he really did not tie him down. One contrasting inaugural speech was Ronald Reagan's in 1981 where he said, here are three things - exact things I am going to do. Reaganism had a clearly planned out government philosophy. I don't think Barack Obama is like that. If there is an Obamaism, it's not necessarily that he has a complete vision of what he wants to do. He has a complete vision of how he wants to go about it.

SIEGEL: Mmm hmm. What about that, E.J., that there may be a style or a method more than a vision here?

Mr. DIONNE: No, well, I think there were quite a few specifics in this speech, certainly about what's in the stimulus plan, but I think it's wrong for us to try to put Obama into some old conservative-liberal argument. I think he is trying to break that mold. But I think the question is, where is he trying to move us? And I think Obama is someone who cares more about the destination than the path there. He's willing to zig a little this way and a little that way if it will get him to his end. But there was a lot of powerful talk about equality in this speech, including economic equality, and we haven't heard that in a long time. That doesn't mean that Joe the Plumber is right and that he's a socialist. He's not a socialist, but he does believe in much great social and economic equality than we've seen in a while, and I think he signaled very strongly that that's the direction in which he wants to move. He does like old values. So do I. So do most people. I think using old values on behalf of new departures is in the great tradition of American progressives.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Thanks to both of you once again.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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Obama Trades Soaring Oratory For Tough Talk

Swearing-In And Inaugural Speech

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President Barack Hussein Obama, the nation's first African-American head of state, on Tuesday proclaimed himself humbled by the challenges he and the country face and issued to citizens a call to reject the fear of decline and work to reaffirm the greatness of the union.

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Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts while first lady Michelle Obama looks on. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

Photos: The Swearing-In Of Barack Obama
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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For a politician known for soaring rhetoric and the ability to transfix his audiences, Obama largely put content, not prose, in the starring role. And he characteristically made only brief mention of the history he embodied on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Much like FDR, who — taking office in 1933, at the nadir of the Great Depression — urged Americans to take comfort in national unity as they faced "arduous days ahead," Obama in plain, strong language also referred to tough times and hard work. "We understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned," the new president said, calling for a "new era of responsibility."

Robert Schlesinger, author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, said that Obama's theme of basic, long-standing American values "is one we've heard from people as ideologically divergent as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan." But the new president's clarion call to the nation to look within to fix its problems, Schlesinger says, has echoes from Obama's days as a community organizer in Chicago.

Though the 47-year-old son of a black Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas reached out to the larger world, including those in Muslim countries, his comments were tempered with a stern commander-in-chief warning.

America, he said, "will not apologize for our way of life" nor hesitate to defend it.

A Break From The Bush Era

The 44th president, who looked out on a massive, diverse crowd that had begun gathering long before the purple light of pre-dawn, also took vigorous account of the failures of the recent past. He decried the "greed and irresponsibility" that weakened the nation's economy and the "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

And he took a strikingly direct aim at Bush-era policies by flatly rejecting what he characterized as the "false choice between our safety and our ideals" and pledging to restore science "to its rightful place."

Though the nation is still young, Obama said pointedly, the time has come for the nation to set aside "childish things."

It was a strong repudiation of Bush policies and represented a clear break with the just-departed administration.

"The fact of the break is not surprising — he ran on a campaign of change," said historian Russell Riley of the University of Virginia. "But it was striking that, with his predecessor seated behind him, there were so many moments in the address where he [was] directly critical of what went before."

A Pragmatic Address

The speech was laced with the concepts of challenge, the power of work and the essentialness of fair play. But for an orator who counts Abraham Lincoln as his hero, there was little evidence of the Great Emancipator in the address.

Historian James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., said that overall, Obama sounded much more like a commander in chief than Lincoln did during his first address, when he was valiantly attempting to preserve the Union.

And Fred Shapiro, a Yale University Law School librarian who edits the Yale Book of Quotations, said he found the speech "fairly eloquent," though without references to inaugural addresses past.

"In style, Obama surprisingly does not echo Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King, as I would have expected," Shapiro said. "Instead he finds his own voice, confident and pragmatic, only at a few points soaring rhetorically."

It clearly was a conscious decision, even amid the high expectations for an oratorical event.

A Long Way From Boston

The inaugural address now joins Obama's pantheon of seminal speeches: from 2002, when, as a state legislator, he denounced military intervention in Iraq, to his groundbreaking speech about race in 2008 and his election victory speech just over two months ago, when he described himself as "never the likeliest candidate for this office."

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy," he said, "tonight is your answer."

Just over 4 1/2 years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the country first got a powerful glimpse of the young, black-skinned man from Illinois who talked about race and responsibility in a way that engaged even those who counted themselves among his political opposites.

It sounded new — different from the rhetoric that grew out of the 1960s' civil rights movement. A message that stressed shared rather than unique experiences. "E pluribus unum," he said. "Out of many, one."

And it was in that speech that Obama introduced America to the themes that would carry him to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, his hand on a Bible. The pundits, he said, like to slice and dice the country into "red states and blue states."

"But I've got news for them," Obama said then. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

"There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq," he said. "We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and the stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Rugged Path Ahead

The broad flourishes were lacking in Tuesday's address; instead, Americans saw a leader assuming the helm of a nation in crisis — at war and deep into a painful recession — who expects much of himself and them.

America's path to greatness "has not been for the fainthearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame," he said.

"Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom."

And along that rugged path, he said, "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

Today Obama, who did marvel at the fact that he's the son of a man who 60 years ago "might not have been served at a local restaurant," left the poetry to inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander. Instead, he turned to the country and said, simply, let us begin the work together.

Or, as FDR said in his 1933 address: "I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first."