A Little Carter, A Little Reagan

The speech, I thought, was a sometimes-dissonant, sometimes-successful attempt to marry expansiveness and sobriety. The language of realism was woven throughout - "our collective failure to make hard choices ... the time has come to set aside childish things ...the challenges we face ... will not be met easily or in a short span of time" - and there was, as Maggie Gallagher put it, an "old-school Protestant" element to much of Obama's rhetoric, from the calls to duty and responsibility, to the promise to marry "hope and virtue," to the praise for the work ethic and criticisms of " those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame." But time and again, Obama pivoted from this theme to the sort of begin-the-world-anew rhetoric that we've come to expect from all our presidents, liberal and conservative alike - promising that hard choices are really false choices, that pragmatism can overcome partisanship, that there's no technological hurdle that Science can't leap, and that all those nameless "cynics" who worry about hubris, overreach and decline don't understand that in the brave new age of Obama, their pessimistic instincts "no longer apply." His description of our straits was sometimes Carteresque, in other words - but his prognosis tilted, inevitably, toward a liberal version of Morning in America.

Which theme is remembered depends on what the future holds, and how Obama governs: It wasn't a speech brilliant enough to write its own page in the history books, a la Kennedy's first inaugural, and so it will be assessed by future generations through the eyes of hindsight, once this presidency has a record against which his opening statement can be judged. For now, it's enough to say that no Presidency in my lifetime has begun with so much promise and peril intermingled, and that every God-fearing American should make it their business to keep Barack Obama in their prayers - today, and for many days to come.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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