By Daniel Politi
Barack Hussein Obama took office as the 44th president of the United States yesterday and immediately vowed to “begin again the work of remaking America.” It was a day of celebration in Washington and across the country as the son of a black immigrant and a white woman from Kansas moved into a White House that was partly built by slaves. USA Today says that around 1.8 million people packed Washington’s National Mall to witness the nation’s first nonwhite president take the oath of office. While everyone around him seemingly couldn’t stop talking about the historical nature of the day, the New York Times points out that Obama made “only passing reference to his own barrier-breaking role in his 18-minute Inaugural Address,” by pointing out that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
For a man who catapulted into political royalty in large part thanks to his powerful speeches, Obama’s inaugural address was “notable for its sober tone as much as its soaring rhetoric,” observes the Washington Post. Indeed, throughout the address, Obama “leavened idealism with realism,” as the Wall Street Journal puts it, and outlined the challenges that the country faces in what he called “this winter of our hardship.” The Los Angeles Times notes that while there was lots of talk of the troubles ahead, “the heart of Obama’s first address to the nation as its president was a rejection of the policies and values of his immediate predecessors.”
Obama made clear that “his aspirations are among the largest of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson,” notes the WP in an analysis piece inside. But he was very short on specifics beyond saying that the road ahead won’t be easy and that Americans must pull together. Instead, as the LAT points out in a Page One analysis, he “spent a surprising amount of time drawing connections” between the problems that the country is now facing and politicians who were focused on what he described as “protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions.”
When soon-to-be-former President Bush came out of the Capitol to take part in the inauguration ceremony, many spectators booed and at one point even sang, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” For his part, Obama made sure to thank Bush for his service but then quickly “delivered what amounted to a searing indictment of the Bush presidency,” says USAT in its analysis piece, which points out that the last time a new president “offered such a stinging critique” of his predecessor at an inauguration was in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt told Americans that “the money-changers have fled.” Most of the other papers pick up on this theme in their own analyses, and the NYT says that Obama’s words “must have come as a bit of a shock” to Bush. He may not be a stranger to criticism, but “he had rarely been forced to sit in silence listening to a speech about how America had gone off the rails on his watch.”
And at some points, he sounded like a father who wanted his children to stop being so immature: “In the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” Obama said in words that made it seem as though he were belittling “what had come before him as frivolous,” as the LAT puts it. The NYT points out that throughout his address, Obama signaled that he’s ready “to embrace pragmatism, not just as a governing strategy but also as a basic value.”
In a line that USAT says “brought a gasp and applause” from the audience, Obama declared, “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” But he was also forceful in his message on terrorism, vowing to defeat “those who seek to advance their aims by … slaughtering innocents.” At the same time, he pledged to “seek a new way forward” with Muslims “based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
The WSJ notes that some Republicans weren’t happy with Obama’s criticisms of the Bush administration in his address. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona said the comments “detracted from the overall high tone of the speech.”
The NYT points out that there were times when Obama seemed “to be having a virtual dialogue with his predecessors.” When Obama said that “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” he was picking up on a theme that both George Bush and Bill Clinton talked about at their inaugurations. In 1981, Ronald Regan declared that “government is the problem,” while in 1997, Bill Clinton retorted by saying that “government is not the problem and government is not the solution.” Yesterday, Obama seemed ready to throw out that old formula, saying that the important question isn’t “whether our government is too big or too small but whether it works.”
Everyone notes that Obama didn’t actually recite the oath of office correctly. Obama and Chief Justice John Roberts may be constitutional experts, but they had problems getting in sync. First, Obama started to recite the words before Chief Justice John Roberts had finished saying the first phrase. But the real problem occurred when Roberts, who was administering the oath for the first time, clearly made a mistake that caused Obama to say he will “execute the Office of President of the United States faithfully” instead of “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” Coincidentally (?) it was the first time any chief justice had sworn in a president who had voted against his confirmation. While constitutional experts agree the mistake was insignificant, they say a do-over wouldn’t hurt and could help avoid some legal headaches in the future.
After the inaugural ceremony ended, President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush left via helicopter to Texas, and the Obama administration got to work. The new president appointed his Cabinet as his first official act, and the Senate quickly approved seven of the nominees but delayed the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. As expected, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ordered federal agencies to stop all work on pending regulations until the new administration can review them. The WP also reports that Obama ordered military prosecutors to ask for a 120-day pause in all pending cases at Guantanamo. Military judges don’t have to automatically grant the requests, but the move is seen as the first step toward closing the facility that came to define much of Bush’s presidency.
Almost as if to underscore the troubles that Obama referred to in his address, the financial crisis reared its ugly head once more and sent stocks plunging as much of Washington was celebrating. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 4 percent of its value in what was the index’s worst Inauguration Day performance in its 124-year history. Banking stocks were the big losers as some of the biggest names in the industry plummeted. Overall, shares of U.S. banks decreased about 20 percent “to their lowest level in more than a decade,” notes the WSJ.
The WP explains that investors were quick to press the sell button as “fresh evidence mounted that the industry’s problems are larger than previously understood,” and current government efforts may not be enough to make things better. Investors fear that Obama will chose to nationalize some banks and wipe out stockholders in the process. Although it is widely seen as a last resort, the fact that nationalization is viewed as a distinct possibility “reflects the failures of repeated government interventions to stem a widening crisis of confidence in the banking system,” reports the WSJ. The Obama administration insists it won’t be rushed into detailing a plan, but officials know that they have to deal with these huge bank losses if they hope to thaw the frozen credit markets.
The NYT‘s Thomas Friedman writes that he hopes “Obama really is a closet radical,” because it’s “a moment for radical departures from business as usual in so many areas.” It’s rare that a politician really has a chance to change the system, but now it’s “impossible to exaggerate how much our future depends on a radical departure from our present.” Obama needs to take risks and be willing to consider new ways to make the country, and the world, a better place. “The hour is late, the project couldn’t be harder, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the payoff couldn’t be greater”.