By Dan Froomkin
2:42 PM ET, 01/21/2009
What a difference a day makes.
Yesterday's inauguration of President Obama represented an epochal shift for this country, from a conservative leader to a liberal, from one generation to another, from a child of privilege to someone entirely self-made, and ever so poignantly, from a white man to a black man.
It also marked the purging of one cultural icon and the rise of another. George Bush leaves office as a symbol to many people of everything that's wrong with America, while Barack Obama enters the White House as a symbol to many of what's right.
Obama, for his part, pulled no punches in his Inaugural Address, casting his presidency as a restorative to Bush's.
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," Obama said.
Though he did not blame the smallness of our politics solely on his immediate predecessor, the message was clear: To Obama, the central meaning of the day was that it represented the long overdue end of an era to which Bush was the capstone.
"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord," Obama said.
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility. . . .
"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics."
You could even call Obama's speech chiding at times. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," he said. "[O]ur time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed."
On national security, Obama audaciously rejected the key tenets of Bushism, declaring that his predecessor's abandonment of core American values and embrace of brute force had amounted to nothing less than a failure of leadership.
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama said. "Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that 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. And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more."
Obama continued: "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Barack Obama's Inaugural Address on Tuesday was a stark repudiation of the era of George W. Bush and the ideological certainties that surrounded it, wrapped in his pledge to drive the United States into 'a new age' by reclaiming the values of an older one."
Sanger saw Obama's speech as "signaling a commitment to remake America's approach to the world and to embrace pragmatism, not just as a governing strategy but also as a basic value."
All of which "must have come as a bit of a shock to Mr. Bush. No stranger to criticism, over the past eight years he had rarely been forced to sit in silence listening to a speech about how America had gone off the rails on his watch.
"Mr. Obama's recitation of how much had gone wrong was particularly striking to anyone who had followed Mr. Bush around the country, especially during the re-election campaign of 2004, when he said it was his job 'to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations.'"
Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "The confluence of events and Obama's politics suggest that his presidency could bring a more momentous shift -- from an era of conservative governance to one in which Washington assumes a more central role in the life of the country.
"Twenty-eight years ago, Ronald Reagan famously used his first inaugural address to declare that 'government is not the solution to our problem.' Yesterday, Obama said, 'The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.' . . .
"It is far too early to know to what degree Obama's presidency will result in a rollback of the conservative era or the beginning of a new progressive era. But his aspirations are among the largest of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, and he seems undaunted by that fact. 'There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,' he said. '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.'"
Christi Parsons and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times that "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 and a somber call for the return of what he called the traditional American virtues of hard work, fair play, tolerance and sacrifice for the common good."
Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Not since Franklin Roosevelt rebuked Herbert Hoover in 1933 -- 'The money-changers have fled,' Roosevelt told Americans struggling through the Depression -- has the incoming president offered such a stinging critique of the outgoing one in his inaugural address."
The New York Times editorial board writes: "In about 20 minutes, he swept away eight years of President George Bush's false choices and failed policies and promised to recommit to America's most cherished ideals. . . .
"Mr. Obama was steely toward those 'who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents.' He warned them that 'our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.' But where Mr. Bush painted this as an epochal, almost biblical battle between America and those who hate us and 'who hate freedom,' Mr. Obama also offered to 'extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.'"
Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "After thanking President Bush 'for his service to our nation,' Mr. Obama executed a high-level version of Stephen Colbert's share-the-stage smackdown of W. at the White House correspondents' dinner in 2006.
"With W. looking on, and probably gradually realizing with irritation, as he did with Colbert, who Mr. Obama's target was -- (Is he talking about me? Is 44 saying I messed everything up?) -- the newly minted president let him have it."
George Packer blogs for the New Yorker: "The speech was, among other things, and in spite of the gracious gesture at its opening, a devastating repudiation of ex-President Bush, who seemed to be shrinking physically as well as historically whenever the camera found him, until, by the end, his unimportance was almost bewildering. Now he is gone."