- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It was a speech marked for history before a word was uttered.

But at a seminal moment in the country’s history, President Obama confronted a joyous nation with a solemn assessment of collective challenge and urged Americans to return to old truths such as honesty, hard work and courage to forge a path ahead.

Mr. Obama summoned the ghost of George Washington and his heroics during the Revolutionary War to call on Americans to rise up and meet “this winter of our hardship.”

“Let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come,” he said, in a line that was particularly poetic for the 2 million or so cold souls enduring the freeze on the Mall.

Mr. Obama countered his own sobriety with a forceful determination to lead the nation through its economic crisis and what he labeled a “war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”


It was a hawkish and yet subtly phrased description of the terrorist threat so often caricatured by former President George W. Bush to the point that many Americans, for that reason and others, became skeptical of its reality.

Mr. Obama showed no illusions, and no weakness, in a line directed at terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists: “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,” he said, drawing loud cheers from the assembled throng.

Speechwriters from the Bush and Clinton presidencies gave the 2,417-word address glowing reviews.

“The man met his moment,” said John McConnell, who wrote speeches for Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for the past eight years, and before that for Vice President Dan Quayle.

The speech, he said, “captured the moment in history, conveyed the spirit of a man, and clearly gave confidence to the country.”

Former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol said that “the most striking thing about the speech was its muscular posture.”

“It was a tough speech in what it had to say about the outgoing administration, about the path ahead. It was not up there in the clouds of hope and change,” Mr. Shesol said. “It was inspiring and stirring, but it was a speech with its feet on the ground.”

“He’s steeling himself and the American people for the challenge ahead,” Mr. Shesol said.

Mr. Obama, who has fought to maintain ties to the world outside the White House even as the security around him has tightened, seemed to have his finger on the pulse of many Americans when he described “a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.”

And in the first rally point of the speech, a transition to his thoughts on the way forward, Mr. Obama said that “the challenges we face are real.”

“They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”

Though he promised a government that would be more responsive and in some ways more activist than his predecessors’, the bulk of Mr. Obama’s prescription focused on reform and renewal among all Americans, which he called “the price and promise of citizenship.”

“Those values upon which our success depends - honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history,” he said.

“What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”

One of the most celebrated presidents, one of the most famous Americans ever, sought to glorify “men and women obscure in their labor” as the ones who will bring the country back.

Mr. Obama promised a new era of bipartisanship in which Washington must “set aside childish things.”

He pledged that the time of “protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions … has surely passed.”

He also sent a shot across the bow of conservative Republicans planning to oppose his roughly $850 billion economic stimulus package on the grounds that it would make government too big.

“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,” he said.

Eli Attie, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, said he liked that particular line “because President Obama is so unmistakably a game-changing president.”

“So many politicians use phrases like that and they don’t have credibility, and I do think he does,” Mr. Attie said.

Finally, in a section reminiscent of President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, Mr. Obama sought once again to, in his own words, restore America’s standing as President Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill.”

“America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity,” he said. “We are ready to lead once more.”

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Mr. Attie described the effect of Mr. Obama’s words: “You felt that this was a historic moment and an urgent moment that rivaled so many of the historical moments that led up to this.”

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