Now This Was an Inauguration

A conspiracy theorist might say that Chief Justice John Roberts, perhaps George W. Bush’s most conservative and most lasting contribution

A conspiracy theorist might say that Chief Justice John Roberts, perhaps George W. Bush’s most conservative and most lasting contribution to American life, was trying to psyche out Barack Obama by intentionally mangling the syntax of the oath of office as he administered it to the new president.

But when Roberts fed him the words in the wrong order, Obama seemed only to chuckle slightly, then gestured to the Chief Justice to try again. Nothing was going to ruin this moment – not for Obama and not for the tens of millions of Americans who had been waiting for months, even years, for this moment.

From a dramatic standpoint, Obama’s inaugural address was the masterpiece you’d expect from a man whose rise to power was predicated on his oratory. He employed powerful language and vivid imagery, varied his pace, and paused for effect several times. But this wasn’t just showmanship: the new president offered some striking and resonant themes in his address.

He set the appropriate tone right away by noting that "every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms." But he also expressed the confidence that Americans badly want from a president taking office as wars rage and the economy teeters on the brink of collapse.

"The challenges we face are real," he declared. "They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short period of time. But know this, America: They will be met."

Inaugural addresses aren’t about specific policy proposals. They are vehicles for presidents to set a tone for their administration – what kind of values and what vision will define it? In his speech, Obama tried to unify two themes that are often in conflict with each other. On one hand, he positioned himself as an agent of radical change, a man eager to junk just about every attitude and assumption that defined his predecessor’s administration. But, mindful of not setting an ideologically polarizing tone, he framed his vision with language designed to break down partisan barriers.

He spoke of how "the stale arguments that have consumed us for too long no longer apply" and declared the basic debate over the size of government, which has divided the two parties for decades, moot. Instead, Obama proposed a pragmatic standard: Does government work?

"When the answer is yes, we will move forward," he said. "When the answer is no, programs will end."

On national security, Obama said: "We declare as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." It was a clear and unavoidable shot at Bush, who sat just a few feet away (unfortunately, television didn’t cut for a reaction shot), but after outlining a vision of a more cooperative foreign policy, Obama resorted to the kind of strident, good-versus-evil language of which Bush was so fond: "We will defeat you," he warned terrorists.

Really, though, it was the mood that surrounded Obama’s speech that was the most notable aspect of the afternoon.

More than a million Americans crammed onto the Mall, most watching on big-screen televisions, to witness the event. They waved small flags and cheered raucously when Obama was introduced and sworn in. During Obama’s speech, television networks cut away to shots from various cities around the country, where large crowds also gathered around giant screens, waiting on their new president’s every word.

This is not how most inaugurations feel, and the contrast to Bush’s in 2001 couldn’t be starker. Bush’s inauguration, on a raw and rainy Saturday, felt more like an installation than a celebration. Few voters had particularly liked him during the 2000 campaign (nor had they cared for Al Gore), and many were convinced that he hadn’t even won the election. Most voters at least accepted his legitimacy, but almost none were excited about him. The crowd at his inauguration was small, the cheers were dull, and the mood was darkened by the presence of protesters.

Amazingly, Bush briefly emerged, in the wake of September 11, as the most popular and unifying president in history, but that first inaugural ended up being a reliable harbinger. When Obama acknowledged him at the start of his speech today, the million-plus attendees could barely muster a respectful round of applause. When the ceremony was over, the Obamas escorted the Bushes to a waiting helicopter. Bush climbed the steps, turned and waved, then stepped inside and flew away. On the ground, the Obamas stood and waved, just like Gerald and Betty Ford once waved to Richard Nixon. Now This Was an Inauguration