WASHINGTON — As he became a precedent-shattering president Tuesday, Barack Obama wrapped himself in America's deepest traditions, invoking God, the Bible, the Founding Fathers, cherished documents and old-fashioned virtues.
The nation's challenges may be new and frightening, Obama said, but the values that will conquer them "are old," and Americans must "return to these truths." His election might be a dramatic turn in U.S. politics, he suggested, but it did not produce a radical leader seeking unproven remedies.
Throughout his campaign to become the first black president, Obama rarely mentioned race unless asked, and he carefully avoided being branded the "black candidate."
Stressed familiar themes
In a similar vein Tuesday, he stressed familiar themes of American governance, with only scant references to the historic dimensions of his achievement (as when he noted that his black father "might not have been served" at Washington restaurants decades ago). An American named Barack Hussein Obama, with a father from Kenya, is as deeply rooted in Bunker Hill as any descendant of the Mayflower's passengers, he seemed to say.
Obama started the day with a service at "the presidents' church," St. John's Episcopal near the White House, where every president since James Madison has worshipped. He planned to end it with the traditional visit to each of the 10 official balls, including brief remarks and a dance with his wife. At some point in between he hoped to enter the Oval Office for the first time as president, said his spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Obama kept his demeanor cool and calm during his midday inaugural address, not trying to push the millions of viewers to new levels of fervor. There were no "I have a dream" crescendos, although he acknowledged "the bitter swill of civil war and segregation."
'Full measure of happiness'
He did not try the inverted syntax of "Ask not what your country can do for you." But he echoed John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln when he urged Americans to "choose our better history" by advancing "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."
He even added a whisper of Shakespeare ("this winter of our hardship"), but he served up few obvious applause lines and no over-the-top rhetoric.
Paraphrased the Bible
Obama paraphrased the Bible early in his speech (it is time "to set aside childish things"), and he asked for "God's grace upon us" at the end.
In between he described a nation founded on rock-solid principles that somehow has lost its way. He decried "our collective failure to make hard choices." Americans must end "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics," he said.
But anyone who thought he would recommend novel or exotic solutions was misguided. Obama hailed "the ideals of our forbearers" and "our founding documents." The speech's longest quote was from George Washington.
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"Our challenges may be new," Obama told the throngs before him and millions watching worldwide on TV. "But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old," and they must be embraced again.
'A new way forward'
Obama's critiques of the Bush administration were subtle, though unmistakable. The nation's military might does not "entitle us to do as we please," he said. "To the Muslim world," he said, "we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."
There was even a light jab at former President Bill Clinton, who once declared "the era of big government is over."
"The question we ask today," Obama said, "is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."
None of this, however, smacked of in-your-face cockiness or new-sheriff-in-town boasting.
The day's performance underscored fundamental questions about how Obama might perform as president. To what extent will he harness his remarkable network of supporters to craft a new brand of politics that might put tremendous pressure on lawmakers if they balk at his agenda? How aggressively will he push to build international support before moving aggressively against terrorism, global warming and other threats?
Conversely, he might play down the novelty of his ascension and emphasize the tried-and-true virtues he cited in his speech, keeping his ego under wraps as he cajoles lawmakers and special interest groups to agree on big issues.
Both sides of Obama were on display Tuesday, albeit in highly traditional trappings.
"The world has changed, and we must change with it," said the man who campaigned for "change we can believe in."
The way to do it, he said Tuesday, is through "a return to these truths" of honesty, courage, loyalty and patriotism.
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