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Inaugural address most impressive for noting start of long, hard journey

Barack Obama had been the 44th president of the United States less than three hours, but the Skeptic in the fast-food line ahead of me was unimpressed.

“He gives a good speech,” the Skeptic said.

As it’s impolite to spit on the floor of even the places I frequent for lunch, the Skeptic returned to studying the menu on the wall.

He gives a good speech.

I’d like to have a nickel for every time in the last eight years I found myself wishing the malapropping Decider in Chief had given a good speech. Or spoken a clear sentence, for that matter.

As I chewed my sandwich, I thought: Well, yes. Obama does give a good speech. I’m not sure what else politicians on the campaign trail or, in his case, just entering office, are supposed to do to prove themselves worthy of a fair shake from the justifiably skeptical American people. Arm-wrestle Third World despots? Get all Jack Bauer on some shadowy figure with a bomb in his turban?

But in a way, I found myself agreeing with the Skeptic. Obama is so skilled at communicating, so deft at giving a good speech, that he outclassed a pretty good lineup of challengers for the Democratic Party nomination. Then he mopped the floor with a merely adequate speechmaker in Sen. John McCain.

So I went back and reread Obama’s inauguration speech, grabbed snippets from the Internet and television, and came away convinced that this was by no means his most rousing oratory. It lacked the audacity of optimism present in so many of his campaign speeches. There were no moments where the Harvard-trained lawyer offered folksy reassurance to masses thirsty for change.

It was a far tougher speech than some progressives had hoped for, and that’s as it should be. These are tough times.

What impressed me most about the new president’s address was that it was mindful that, while this was a great day for the Obama family and the nation generally, this is also the beginning of a long, arduous journey up from recession and back to prosperity.

Some surely expected a speech filled with rhetorical crescendos and paeans to the civil rights movement. If they listened, what they heard most was a serious man stepping into the breach in a most serious time — and doing so in under 20 minutes.

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood,” he said. “Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

In broad-brushing our current domestic and foreign crises, and speaking in terms of progressive pragmatism, Obama signed on for a war being waged on many fronts. It’s what leaders must do to be effective: own complex problems not of their own making.

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” he said. “The question we ask today is not whether government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

Those aren’t the words of a glib liberal. They are the words of someone who, perhaps a bit naively considering the realities of Washington, intends to defy political stereotypes.

Whether you’re a true believer or a certified skeptic, we should all pray President Obama is up to the task.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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