President Barack Obama

There were, in Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, faint echoes of two of his predecessors—perhaps not surprisingly, they shared with Mr. Obama a gift for language and imagery. When Mr. Obama delivered a rhetorical jab at those “who question the scale of ambitions,” a careful listener heard the sunny tones of Ronald Reagan, who argued against the notion of American decline in another dark year, 1981. And when Mr. Obama promised “to work alongside” the “people of poor nations,” some of us of a certain age recalled another cold winter’s day in Washington, when a trailblazing president named John F. Kennedy pledged “our best efforts” to help “those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery.”

That is not to say Mr. Obama’s speech was unoriginal; rather, it was a welcome return to that combination of confidence and humility that is so distinctly American. Gone was the pugnacity of George W. Bush’s second inaugural, in which he spoke about reshaping the world in America’s image. Mr. Obama extended his hand to those for whom big ideas about democracy and liberty are of small moment compared with the struggles of daily life. Such a gesture, he reminded us, is no sign of weakness. Rather, it is the mark of a great nation willing to engage in the humble work of partnership.

Mr. Obama’s Inaugural Address was the most anticipated such speech in generations, one of the few such occasions that historians will mark as historic. On this day, with this speech, the legacy of millions of activists, workers and freedmen, the memories of the forced labor of men and women and children who lived under the lash, provided the most dramatic backdrop to a transition of power since John Adams grudgingly ceded the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in 1801. That first transfer of power, remarkable in its tranquility though scarred by personal enmity, provided the nation with a test of its stated ideals. Before taking the oath, Jefferson famously noted that despite the young nation’s disagreements, “we are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.”

It is easy to suspend partisanship, at least for a day. It is, relatively speaking, a simple task to recall that we are all Americans, united by more than what divides us.

But nobody would dare say, even on such a day as Tuesday, that we are all black; we are all white. Race and its divisions have soiled our legacy and poisoned our ideals. Republicans can put themselves in the place of a Democrat. But white people cannot imagine what it has been like to be black in America. As John Kennedy said in 1963, who among us who are white would change the color of our skin?

Mr. Obama’s speech certainly contained more than a nod to this history as he reminded us that less than 60 years ago—indeed, during John Kennedy’s administration—the father of a future president would have been denied access to a public lunch counter because of his skin color. But he did not dwell on the personal. He did not engage in the politics of autobiography. Perhaps in another age, but not now. He knows, and beginning today we must realize, that history will note the milestone but will judge him by his actions. He has promised to bring change. He will be measured by that promise, and whether the change he effects is real and lasting.

He is off to a good start. In the presence of the men who made waterboarding a household term, he told us that we need not choose between security and the rule of law. He addressed himself to the Muslim world, promising a “new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

But even as he sought a new start, even as he tried to distance himself from the failed policies of the last eight years, he reminded the world—and us—that America has no reason to “apologize for our way of life.” Nor, he said, would we “waver in its defense.” Those who wondered if the new president understood that the world is a dangerous place no doubt were relieved to hear the toughness—the realism—in his voice.

Finally, even as the nation celebrated not just a new president but one unlike any other—Barack Obama told us that this time is ours, not his, that it is up to us to seize the moment.