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Obama speech strong but anti-climatic

WASHINGTON - Barack Obama didn't always soar in his inaugural address Tuesday, but he scored the points he needed to satisfy the legion of hopeful supporters eagerly listening to the new president here and around the world.

Looking out over a sea of people from the Capitol's west steps on a cold, sunny midday, Obama delivered a confident, almost somber speech, rooted in history and aimed at the future, with the primary themes of responsibility and change.

After all the hype leading up to the ceremony Tuesday, Obama's address almost seemed anti-climatic, but still he hit every marker he needed to hit in a strong speech that lasted just about 20 minutes.

Obama is now likely at the peak of his popularity. If he wants to bring about the sweeping changes on his ambitious agenda, he needs to retain a high level of public support, much as Ronald Reagan did, for it to succeed in Congress.

In his often-specific list of his coming economic stimulus package and his intonation of his broader vision, Obama sought to solidify and engage that support.

Interestingly, Obama, who said his administration's "vision of change" comes from him, delivered some of his most memorable lines in describing the sharp breaks he intends to make with the tone and policies of exiting President George W. Bush.

On the confidence-shattering economic crisis he inherited, Obama said, "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

On the previous administration's controversial measures such as waterboarding suspected terrorists and surveillance of Americans, Obama said, "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

And on the GOP's long war on the federal government, Obama said, "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Those lyrical touches were among several morsels embedded in the address, Stony Brook University political science professor Matthew Lebo said.

But still Lebo said he expected the address to be "more poetical and less practical."

Presidential scholar Meena Bose said this may well be an address "to be read and reread" in the future, more than one to be delivered as a speech.

"I think it was a very energetic speech and it was a beautiful speech," said Bose, chair of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. "History is going to tell whether we remember this inauguration for the speech or the historical events around it."

But Obama accomplished what he needed to do.

He described the nation's economic straits in stark terms and affixed the blame: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices."

He expressed confidence in the American people and charged them with pulling the country out of its tailspin: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility. . . . This is the price and the promise of citizenship."

He stressed his intent to keep America secure: "We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense."

He vowed a more open approach to other countries, telling the Muslim world he seeks "a new way forward," and offering to "extend a hand" to corrupt leaders if "you're willing to unclench your fist."

He called for unity and offered subtle, but unmistakable olive branches to Republicans and conservatives.

In his call for Americans to volunteer for public service, Obama paraphrased his former presidential foe John McCain, to define its spirit: "a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves."

But perhaps for many Americans one of the most notable achievements of the speech may well have been his deft handling of the overall historic importance of the moment: the election of the first African-American to the presidency.

Or as he described it to prolonged applause:

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall," Obama said.

"And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

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