A tough speech

Our view : President Obama puts his fellow Americans at the center of renewing the country, to lead by example and set the course of a brighter future for all

January 21, 2009

President Barack Obama didn't speak to the ages in his inaugural address but instead pressed Americans to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking the nation."

It was a heartening admonition from a president widely criticized when a candidate as being more interested in the power of his words than tough-minded solutions to the critical problems America faces.

This time, President Obama rejected what he called the stale political arguments of cynics. He challenged those who suggest the country cannot tolerate too many big plans and criticized a collective failure to make hard choices to prepare for the future. His critique rang true. Too many of our leaders have been willing to accept the status quo and push problems forward for others to solve. Too many Americans have pursued an easy path to the good life.

Indeed, the new president's plain talk defied the conventional platitudes of political speech and reiterated his post-election warnings that the critical economic and political problems facing the country require urgent attention and painful choices. That candor has produced a double-digit increase in his popularity, recent polls indicate, but Mr. Obama needs to mobilize that popularity in support of his efforts. Members of Congress should note the change in the public's mood and join the president in seeking reasonable solutions to our shared problems.

We appreciate the new president's calm assessment of the nation's current circumstances, particularly the nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights: "Greatness is never a given. It must be earned."

Whether at home or abroad, America needs to show that it lives up to its ideals, and Mr. Obama rightly recognized that. He appropriately repudiated a number of Bush administration missteps, rejecting its "false choice" between safety and American values - a clear allusion to the mistreatment of terrorism suspects - and declaring that American military power does not "entitle us to do as we please," a reference to the long struggle in Iraq.

But if President Obama's assessments were sober, he was also encouraging. He praised the hard work, faith and determination of the American people, and he challenged the nation to "refuse to let this journey end."

It was not his most artful speech, but it was surely the most purposeful. He long ago proved that he could make people cry. Yesterday, he seemed determined to make them think and, more important, to act.

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