Echoing an essential American principle, President Barack Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address yesterday that "we do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm."
Those strong words -- from a president with a freshly won mandate -- are as welcome as they are inspirational.
Yet the Obama who took the oath of office for a second term is a president whose face is more lined, whose hair is flecked with gray and whose address was less a plea for comity this time and more of a combative articulation of the America he would like to see.
Gone was the youthful, lyrical idealist of four years ago. Obama this time sounded far more political and certain of his destination.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," he said, adding later, "they have never been self-executing."
A powerful symbol of Obama's vision was the presence of his first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Raised in a Bronx housing project, Sotomayor swore in Vice President Joe Biden. Adding to the New York flavor of the event was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who presided over the ceremony, and the superb Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, which sang a stirring reinterpretation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Obama sketched out a series of broad principles:
Medicare and Social Security strengthen us.
Every citizen deserves a measure of security and dignity.
We will respond to the threat of climate change.
Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.
Enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.
But what is it Obama can do to advance these concepts?
It helps that the country is experiencing a fragile, but real, economic recovery. The Iraq War is over and the Afghanistan War is ready to wind down. Yet, he was vague on his foreign policy goals, as crises keep erupting and al-Qaida is still a problem.
There was no mention of job creation. He needs to cut an out-of-control budget deficit. He needs to pass an immigration reform bill. He needs to hammer through a stronger gun control law.
How can Obama enact his agenda given the Republican majority in the House of Representatives? How can he enact his agenda among an electorate that, despite his mandate, remains split on many key issues?
The answer is: He will have to lead -- skillfully and relentlessly.
He will have to put a detailed agenda on the table and then make it happen -- meaning he will have to rally Americans to his side at every step of the way. We have heard stirring words from Obama before and seen him disappear, leaving a vacuum for opponents to fill. The Barack Obama who spoke yesterday has plenty of ringing ideas. But now he needs to lay them out and sell them as he never has before.