For those of us who had expected an inaugural address that would ring like Kennedy's, Obama's words on Tuesday were surprising. Stern, even ominous, they evoked not triumph but warning.
But we have learned we can't predict this president. He's usually ahead of us, and his words are always worth reading twice. Since Tuesday I've re-read his speech several times, finding more in it each time, and so has Frank Rich.
Rich is one of the most insightful commentators on the Times masthead. After Safire's senile dismissal of Obama's inaugural, Rich's close reading places the speech squarely in the context of the times, where Obama found himself called upon to give it:
Obama couldn’t give us F.D.R.’s first inaugural address because we are not yet where America was in 1933 — in its fourth year of downturn after the crash of ’29, with an unemployment rate of 25 percent. But no one knows for sure that we cannot end up there
As always, Obama is thinking forward and giving the speech that will make sense to history, not the one that will raise cheers today and be ridiculed tomorrow ("Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.")
The speech is freighted with responsibilities and stern calls to service and sacrifice. Not since Carter has a president struck such a puritanical note. We couldn't quite take it from Carter -- as president he often seemed preachy and holier-than-thou (and we didn't know then that as an ex-president he'd earn his sainthood). Which makes it all the more remarkable that we can take it from this younger man. What is it about him that makes it okay for him to talk down to us, while simultaneously lifting us up? Somehow he's heir to some of that real preacher mojo, the kind Martin Luther King brazed into our public consciousness for all time.
No one truly listening to the Inaugural Address could doubt that this former community organizer intends to demand plenty from us as we face down what he calls "raging storms."
There will be more Obama speeches, that yield phrases to chisel on granite slabs, like Kennedy's and King's and Lincoln's. But they will be delivered when something has happened, or when something needs to happen. On Tuesday this president had done nothing yet, except prepare. If we learned nothing else from his inaugural, it's that he is prepared. And, he said clearly, we must get ourselves ready, too.