After two years of campaigning; after thousands of speeches in schools, convention centers, stadiums and parks; after an extended tour of the nation and the world, Barack Obama proved many times over that he is a skilled orator. But, now elected and on the verge of governing, his task yesterday was much larger.
Obama drew large crowds before his inauguration, but the crowd he addressed at the Capitol was by far his largest yet, as he stood in front of millions and spoke to tens of millions more across the country and around the world. For the first time he addressed his audience as their president, the president of the United States.
His speech was a short 18 minutes, and it was intended neither to win votes nor to outline policy. Instead he set out to inspire and to lead, no longer as the head of a campaign, now with the power of his office.
The next four years will require Obama to maintain the political capital that 69 million votes won him. In that regard, his pre-presidency was perfect. He enters office with the highest approval rating for an incoming president since Harry Truman. His calm during conflict and the team he has selected to surround him have earned respect, won admiration and created hope in many who were not convinced before Nov. 4.
Since his election, Obama has sought to expand his base beyond those 69 million. He will try to continue to do so, and, as important, he will work to maintain support among those who currently support him.
Yesterday’s address was the start of that effort. He spoke to the nation as he always has: eloquently, intelligently, maturely. The expectations for the speech were astronomical, so it is hardly relevant whether he met them. What matters instead is that he explained why we should trust him as our national steward.
Obama displayed again yesterday that, removed from his politics and even his success, he is what students like us should hold as a model. He is exactly what a school like ours works to produce.
For Obama, words are not ornaments, and expressiveness is neither a joke nor an embarrassment. He can and does use language powerfully to communicate, as great leaders before him have done. He showed yesterday that he will now use his verbal gifts to govern, not only to campaign.
He did and will speak not only eloquently, but also honestly. The speech was not happy, though it struck positive notes. It was straightforward about our national challenges and goals, and about the burdens we citizens will bear as we weather current and future conflicts. Obama did not seek to have us look past the difficulties we face, nor did he dismiss them simplistically as requiring “hard work.”
The schools and individuals that contributed to the education of Barack Obama deserve great credit for helping shape the man he has become. He deserves credit himself for absorbing all that he has and so confidently displaying his skills to the nation.
Now he must turn these qualities, shared publicly for two years, inward toward the members of his administration and members of Congress to finally achieve what he has so long professed.
Yesterday’s speech was a good start. Today the real work begins.