Barack Obama's Inaugural Address: Humility, Gratitude, Sacrifice

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Alex Brandon / AP

Humility, gratitude and sacrifice. From his first words, Barack Obama let us know that even on a day so bright, he was not blinded. Not by the cloud of witnesses in front of him. Not by the lights of cameras sending his words across the planet. That he was willing to sound so somber on his day of celebration tells us many things at once. At a time of scarcity, do not waste opportunities. When the world is watching and willing to follow, tell them where you want to take them. And above all, tell the truth. (See pictures of the Inauguration of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.)

"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood," he said, and yet he reminded us how deep it was, not only with war and loss and economic decline, but with doubt and dread and a "nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable and that the next generation must lower its sights."

And yet it was by confronting so clearly all that frightens and threatens us that Obama could issue his challenge. "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given," he said. "It must be earned." To do that, he said, America must dismiss the cynical, resist the easy but futile fix, "reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government." (See pictures of celebrities at the Inauguration.)

He offered to the world a similar prospect: "Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

And then he brought it all together, the challenge and the duty and the promise: "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." (See pictures of Sasha and Malia Obama at the inauguration.)

This was the day's catechism and call to arms. The Obamas began the morning with prayer at St. John's Episcopal Church, where Dallas pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes offered a warning as well as a blessing: "You cannot change what you will not confront," he said. "This is a moment of confrontation in this country ... The problems are mighty and the solutions are not simple, and everywhere you turn there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make. But you are all fired up, sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you." (See pictures of how Barack Obama prepared his speech.)

The entire nation, it seemed, had shown up this morning, wrapped against the cold, turning the Mall into a vast red sea. You could almost pity the pundits as they groped for extravagant new ways to say what didn't need to be said in the first place. Historic? The monuments themselves seemed to lean in for a better view. There were the Tuskegee Airmen and the mighty of Motown, the past Presidents (like a live-action Mount Rushmore) and the whole of America in miniature, as though the continent folded in on itself and poured 300 million people into one space, one time, to stop and listen and then start over together.

What brought them to Washington, on flights that turned into airborne pep rallies, on buses that left at midnight, on foot from the four corners of a city on lockdown? "The cataclysm of joy," said the bohemian from Brooklyn, N.Y. A chance to throw a shoe at President Bush, said the disenchanted Republican. To celebrate the fact that anything is possible, said the Apache from Arizona. Some people brought with them mementos of those who could not come. Jenny Allen, a 38-year-old fundraiser from West Virginia, wore a laminated picture of her great-aunt, an elegant lady in a double strand of pearls who fought for civil rights years ago. "Peggy Ewing Waxter, 1904-2007," Allen said. "She would have loved this day." (See the 10 greatest speeches of all time.)

And so they could all say they were there, to stand together and glimpse a man in the very far distance accept the full weight of their hopes. That, in the end, is the source of Obama's power. What are we willing to let him do with his office, with a power greater than the one he had when he began this day? At his national-security briefing in the morning, Obama was instructed in the use of the nuclear codes, should he ever have to launch a strike. Once he was sworn in, once the 21 guns had saluted, the military aide in charge of the nuclear football quietly crossed the platform to stand beside his new Commander in Chief.

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