New President, 'New Era Of Responsibility'

Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States Tuesday. He delivered a sober, plain-spoken inaugural address that did not contain the soaring rhetoric that often marked his campaign speeches. He told the crowd, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility."

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His words were more somber than some expected, given some of the soaring speeches of his recent past. But if Barack Obama's speech was quiet, the goals laid out were vast. He spoke of no less than remaking America and also changing its relationship with the world. One of the many people listening around the world was NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: As the Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren put it in his invocation, yesterday was a hinge point of history. The first African-American president of the United States, with his hand on Abraham Lincoln's Bible, taking an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, which originally counted a black man as three-fifths of a person. But President Obama barely mentioned race yesterday. Instead, he wasted no time describing what he called the gathering clouds and raging storms the country confronts right now.

(Soundbite of inaugural speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama didn't describe what hard choices Americans will have to make. That, presumably, will come later on. But he did promise bold, swift action to fix the economy, and he laid out a list of his priorities, many of which are already proposed in the stimulus plan Congress is considering.

(Soundbite of inaugural speech)

President OBAMA: We will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

LIASSON: All this we can do, Mr. Obama said, and this we will do. In addition to the economic stimulus, health care and energy, President Obama is planning the huge and growing budget deficit and reforming Medicare and Social Security. All in his first term. It's a hugely ambitious program, and he acknowledged yesterday that some wonder if our political system can handle so much big change. But he asserted that one debate has already been settled, about the need to recalibrate the balance between government and the market.

(Soundbite of inaugural speech)

President OBAMA: 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.

LIASSON: Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem. Bill Clinton declared the era of big government was over. Yesterday, Barack Obama said the market has spun out of control, and he argued that only a better, smarter government can provide the balance wheel. If there was one memorable slogan in the speech, it was "a new era of responsibility." Mr. Obama called on Americans to summon some old-fashioned virtues, hard work and honesty, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.

(Soundbite of inaugural speech)

President OBAMA: What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility. A recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world. Duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

LIASSON: For presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, the speech recalled the words of another young president.

Dr. WILLIAM LEUCHTENBURG (Political Historian): There were the echoes of John F. Kennedy in the call for the American people to realize that they're going to have to pitch in, that this is not something that government alone can solve, which is another way of saying that this isn't something he alone is going to be able to solve. And that it's going to require a change of attitude, a willingness to work hard, a willingness to accept discipline.

LIASSON: On foreign policy, President Obama repeated his promise to use more soft power, saying we could have our ideals and safety at the same time. To the Muslim world, he offered a new way forward based on mutual interest and respect. But he also had a warning to those who might test a young, relatively inexperienced new president.

(Soundbite of inaugural speech)

President OBAMA: 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Today, President Obama will spend his first full day at the White House and he will focus on foreign policy, convening a meeting of his national security council to begin planning for a withdrawal from Iraq and an escalation in Afghanistan. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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Obama Trades Soaring Oratory For Tough Talk

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.

Photo Gallery

Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

hide captionBarack 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.

Photos: The Swearing-In Of Barack Obama
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."

Correction Jan. 22, 2009

The story said that the Constitution "originally counted a black man as three-fifths of a person." In fact, the three-fifths rule applied only to slaves, not to free blacks.

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