What He Said


The oath of office has been spoken during “rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace, but at other times during “raging storms… That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood.” There is war, and a failed conomy, due in part to “greed and irresponsibility on the part of some,” but also in part to our “collective failure to make hard choices.”

The challenges “are serious and they are many… but know this, America — they will be met.” (Big cheer.)

“We have chosen hope over fear… on this day we come to proclaim an end to petty differences and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas… In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things… to choose our better history… that precious gift… the idea that all are equal, all are free, and deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

But our “greatness” must be earned. It’s not a path “for those who seek leisure over work,” but for “the doers, the makers of things” who “have carried us up the long, rugged path” to freedom and prosperity. Our forebears “toiled in sweatshops… endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth,” crossed raging seas, fought in wars and “worked till their hands were raw” to realize for us “a better life.” And “this is the journey that we continue today.”

“Our minds are no less inventive” than before; “our capacity is undiminished.” But our “time of standing pat — that day is surely past.” We must “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

So we will create new jobs and “create a foundation for growth.” We will harness the sun and wind and soil to power our cars” and everything else.

“Now there are some,” he said, “who question the scale of our ambitions… their memories are short… for they have forgotten what this country has already done. What thiese cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them.” “Stale political arguments” are out of date. Programs either work or they don’t; that’s the measure of their success or failure.

The financial crisis reminds us that “without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control, and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” It must work for all, “not out of charity” but for “the common good.”

And he rejects as false “the choice between our safety and our ideals.” He recalls our forefather’s respect for “the rule of law and the rights of man” and will not forsake them “for expedience’s sake.”

Earlier generations faced down Fascists and Communists “not just with guns and tanks… they knew our security emanates from the justice of our cause… we are the keepers of this legacy.” We will “begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people” and “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan… “We will not apologize for our way of life,” nor slacken in its defense. To our ememies he says, “You cannot outlast us and we will defeat you. For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.” We are “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-belivers.” We have “tasted the bitter swill of Civil War and segregation,” and we know that “the lines of tribe will soon dissolve” and that America must play its role in assuring a lasting peace.

He offers the Muslim world a challenge: “Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy” Repression and silencing of dissent places them “on the wrong side of history… we are willing to extend our hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

“We can no longer afford indifference” to the plight of the outside world. “The world has changed and we must change with it.” We remember “with humble gratitude” the troops “who patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains” because “they are the guardians of our liberty, but because they also embody the spirit of service.”

And it is “precisely that spirit” that we must all embody, “the selfishness of workers that would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job.”

“Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them,” but “honesty and hard work… loyalty and patriotism… these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history… what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility… duties we do not grudgingly accept but embrace freely.”

This, he says, “is the price and the promise of citizenship…. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed… and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant may now stand before you to take a sacred oath.”

He dedicates the day to “remembrance of who we are and how far we have travelled.” Recalls another cold day when “the snow was stained with blood and the fate of our Revolution was in doubt.” Reads Washington’s declaration on that day (“that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it”). So “in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words,” and “let it be said by our children’s children… we did not turn back, nor did we falter,” and preserved that “great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

And that was that. Short speech, about twenty minutes in all.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 20, 2009


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