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The Poet-In-Chief

The graceful Inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, spoke after the poetry. For it was Barack Obama's long-anticipated speech that truly showed the writerly hand. There were echoes of prior inaugural addresses (particularly John Kennedy, but also flickers of Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton) in the new president's words, but repeatedly there were striking phrases and sudden bursts of imagery that made it Obama's own. Whether it was through simple language about the "the still waters of peace" and the nation's "patchwork heritage" or the angry evocations of "the lash of the whip" and "the bitter swill of civil war and segregation," President Obama reminded the nation that here was a man who wrote himself into his job.

For those eager to find policy guidance amid Obama's stirring prose, the headline passages were those that underscored that this is a determined, unflinching, activist president. Erecting a straw man in front of the Capitol (who might as well wear a sign that reads, "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell"), Obama sniffed, "There some who question the scale of our ambitions--who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans ...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." (Roosevelt buffs may note that FDR used a similar trope in his second inaugural when he invoked an abstraction called Timidity which brooded, "How difficult is the road ahead.")

There was a glint of steel in Obama's words, displaying a stay-the-course resolve that rarely surfaced during the Democratic primaries. Obama sounded the Kennedy-esque trumpets to bear any burden when he declared in words designed to be heard in the untamed frontier regions of Pakistan, "For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

Upholding a tradition that began with Clinton in 1993 and continued with George W. Bush in 2001, Obama began by pointedly thanking his predecessor with boilerplate language "for his service to our nation." But the new president waited until mid-speech to announce his rejection of Bush's sorriest legacy--the torture cells, the black sites, and the gloves-are-off repudiation of the rule of law. Watching the speech on television, I longed for a glimpse of Dick Cheney's face as Obama stated that America's "ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."

A headline that the Obama media team may have wanted on the address was a reference to the inaugural call for "a new era of responsibility--a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world." This was the one moment in the speech that smacked more of focus groups and poll numbers than authenticity. It probably is not coincidental that the same theme was embedded in Clinton's pedestrian 1997 inaugural address, a speech that incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (a top level second-term Clinton advisor) probably knows by heart. As Clinton said, in an eerie foreshadowing of Obama's language, "Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility--not only for ourselves and our families, but for our neighbors and our nation."

When it came to the subject of his own racial heritage, Obama was as understated as the inaugural benediction from Rick Warren was overwrought. There were no paeans to Abraham Lincoln (slave-owning George Washington was, instead, the president quoted), no reminders of the role of slaves in the construction of the White House and no explicit recognition of the aged Tuskegee Airmen visible on the inaugural platform. Instead, there was just a brief but poignant reminder by President Obama that his Kenyan-born father "less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant."

In a media environment dominated by lists and letter grades, there is the unavoidable necessity to play the ranking game. In the immediate afterglow of the inaugural pageantry, it is difficult to decide whether Obama's offering was merely very good or one that will ring through the ages. Despite the new president's flawless delivery and the emotional power of seeing the sea of humanity stretch to the Lincoln Memorial, my guess is that Obama's address was a little too cerebral, a little too reflective of recent White House history to reach the standard of greatness. Of course, it seems ludicrous to grump that Obama did not equal Lincoln's second inaugural or FDR's first. What matters is that America, for the first time since the 1960s, boasts a president whose words have weight and whose speeches grow better on second reading. Tuesday afternoon, January 20, 2009, should be remembered as a worthy introduction to the Age of Obama.

Walter Shapiro, who just completed covering his eighth presidential campaign, is a former White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter.

By Walter Shapiro