President Obama's first day

A memorable and most moving event. I don't know that I have ever seen a crowd like it. Impossible on the ground even to guess how many people were there. I see that estimates are putting the number at between one and two million. They were evidently from all over the country: this was not just a Washington thing. The mood was striking. It was joyful but not crazy (not yet anyway: the bars stay open late tonight). People looked happy and proud. When Obama gave his speech, they listened intently.

He was measured and somewhat sombre: not subdued, I thought, as some said, but urgent and serious. No applause lines, and in the calm delivery no striving for effect. He touched his familiar themes. Much of what he said did not surprise me, but it was good to hear it said nonetheless, and to hear it said so well.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn. Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

Telling, that his reference to the "lash of the whip" was there, in the first place, but also folded so gently into an expression of thanks to the country's pioneers and soldiers and workers--all of them among the "we" who built "our nation". You might call that coming to terms with history.

He strongly underlined some points of difference with the outgoing administration:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: 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.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

But high up in the speech he also said this, more to my surprise:

Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.


We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and 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.

The idea that the country is fighting a war on terror is one that most liberals disapprove of, and that many find infuriating. He did not need to use that freighted Bush-era term, but he used it nonetheless. Later, having referred to the United States as a "patchwork" of "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers", he elaborated a little:

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. 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.

Of course the crowd was jubilant at the end but also, insofar as a crowd of more than a million people can be, pensive. As usual, Obama had given them a lot to think about.