Everybody's talking about it, so why not run with with the crowd? The full text of Obama's inauguration speech is here and here. I do not offer exhaustive commentary, but follow the example of Bronwen Maddox and Phillip Collins who, on pages 6 and 7 of the print edition of The Times today (I cannot find the item online), provide marginal comments on selected passages from what Obama said. Here goes.
Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.
That sounds a bit like the war formerly known as the 'war on terror'.
The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
To 'choose our better history' is a proper note to strike in a speech of this kind (of which more later). On the other hand, the promise that all are equal is only half realized in the United States of America: morally equal, equal before the law; but it is a land of crying economic inequalities. And some get a much better chance than others do to 'pursue their full measure of happiness'.
In reaffirming the greatness of our nation...
Amen to that. Wasn't yesterday itself a most striking testimony to this greatness? A world never finished with mouthing off about the US, its shortcomings and its misdemeanours, couldn't take its eyes off what was happening there: this day of achievement, this huge democratic assembly symbolizing, renewing and reclaiming a tradition of democracy strengthened by its own coming together. By that very attention the world paid tribute to what it knows America to be.
We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.
Striking a necessary note against obscurantism, and signalling the need for a country of such wealth to recognize the elementary right of its citizens to adequate health care.
[T]here are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
Nobody, in truth, forgets it; there is no intelligent political observer who doesn't really know it. Some pretend not to, or try to hide it from themselves and others. 'What free men and women can achieve' and have achieved.
[T]his crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous.
A neat linguistic play: 'cannot prosper' when 'favour[ing] only the prosperous'. Whether or not the president's generalization is true of 'the nation', the non-prosperous will not prosper in these circumstances, and that is unjust so long as the reason they don't prosper is that it is impossible for them to do so.
As for our common defence, 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.
This and the paragraphs immediately following it are the glowing heart of the speech: to uphold America's ideals - which 'still light the world' - but also to defend those ideals against their enemies, who will be defeated.
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.
People of various faiths, and without forgetting those of no faith.
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.
Know that... know that... Indeed. It is the unanswerable argument of liberal and pluralist democracy.
...we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders...
Crucial will be how much is done to turn these words into effective policy.
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
Magnificent, indelible meaning of January 20, 2009, and of November 4, 2008, before it.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have travelled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.
At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
It's hard to imagine a British leader speaking like this. But is America the poorer for the fact that its leaders should be able - and also willing without embarrassment - to call on a tradition of high rhetoric and practised eloquence in cementing civic loyalty and affirming allegiance to democratic ideals? Yesterday, it didn't look like it.