Obama ushers in ‘era of responsibility’

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WASHINGTON _ President Barack Obama’s call for an “era of responsibility” as he took office Tuesday amounts to a fresh set of compacts at home and abroad _ shared sacrifice to restore economic prosperity and friendship backed by strength to renew America’s influence and image.

With millions gathering to witness the first black president take power, and billions around the globe watching for shifts in U.S. society and policies, Obama offered uplift, tough love and an unceremonious repudiation of the last eight years.

“The challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time,” Obama said. “But know this, America: they will be met.”

A million or more gathered on a bright cold day, a record inaugural crowd sprinkled with Americans who had lived thought poll taxes and segregated schools.

Survivors of the Tuskegee Airmen were on hand. Generations had fought to see this day, and Obama did not shy from the historic nature of it, though he didn’t linger on it either.

With so much sacrifice ahead, so many crises to tackle _ from wars to market meltdowns _ the 44th president sought in his inaugural address to mobilize the nation toward a new set of common goals.

But can he do it? He was short on details, long on hints that the nation’s economic malaise could be prolonged _ and that solutions will cause even more disruption for some.

He promised prosperity, but not right away and not, perhaps, without bold or potentially painful efforts.

He promised to leave Iraq and forge peace in Afghanistan, and he sent a steely message for the terrorists whose anti-American plots and deeds consumed the Bush presidency.

“You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you,” Obama said.

It was an echo of Bush-era condemnation of radical Islam _ coupled with an offer of a clean slate, to those willing to seize the moment.

“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” Obama said, in one of several deft phrases that punctuated his speech and drew thunderous cheers.

And of the people he will now govern, he asked for work and sacrifice.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility _ a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world,” Obama said. “There is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

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Bush headed home to Texas without offering a review. But another former president, Bill Clinton, called it a superior effort to reshape America’s role.

“He reached out explicitly to the rest of the world. You know, there are about 2 billion people that watched this on television,” Clinton said after the speech. “He really touched a lot of people, not just the people _ the vast throng of people _ who were here.”

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Whatever Obama said on his first day as president, and whomever his intended audiences, there was no ignoring the momentousness of the occasion. A transfer of power from one president to another, one party to another, is always remarkable.

But this was a first. All of Obama’s predecessors were white.

And from the steps of the Capitol, with a huge and diverse crowd arrayed before him, the dreams given voice by Martin Luther King Jr. four decades ago at the far end of the National Mall seemed to whisper.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, of all people, was at a loss to describe the feeling. “There are no words,” she said, seated a short throw from the spot where Chief Justice John Roberts swore in Obama, with the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, an aide long ago to Dr. King, called it a day of “unspeakable joy for the nation. . . . The path has been laid with tears and blood. And now this day at last.”

But, he added, “it’s not about Barack, it’s about all of us. He’s just a light in darkness.”

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Inside the Capitol, just before the ceremony so many had waited so long to see, retired Gen. Colin Powell averred that while all Americans will celebrate the breakthrough, the new president needs more than good will.

“The problems are significant. They aren’t just going to go away because he was inaugurated,” Powell said. “These are challenging times.”

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Others also welcomed the new era with tempered optimism.

“No one can fulfill all of the expectations that are there,” said Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio, Texas, mayor and Clinton housing secretary. But the nation’s hopes are “a major source of political capital that they will have to manage with great respect.”

Obama offered some pointed critiques of his predecessor, who sat behind him, listening stoically.

He spoke of “a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”

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He lauded the free market’s unmatched power to “generate wealth and expand freedom” and decried its destructive ferocity when left unchecked by the “watchful eye” of government.

He embraced the use of American military power but noted that “power grows through its prudent use” _ a subtle yet unmistakable rejection of Bush-era doctrine.

In the most direct repudiation, Obama asserted that when it comes to national security, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” _ an allusion to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the use of interrogation techniques seen as torture by many U.S. allies.

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To some ears, it added up to an overly harsh critique of an underappreciated president.

Bush, said Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions after the speech, deserves credit for keeping the nation safe after Sept. 11, 2001.

“I wish (Obama) had toned it down,” said Sessions, a member of the House Republican leadership. “This president will have an opportunity to deal with every single one of those issues.”

Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor awaiting confirmation to the Obama Cabinet, said Obama couldn’t avoid the obvious.

“We can’t confront the challenges that are ahead of us if we can’t speak honestly about them,” he said.

And it was no accident that Obama took pains to warn of a slow recovery, said senior adviser David Axelrod, who described the message as realism twinned with optimism.

“We want people to understand, this isn’t going to be easy,” he said. “But we can begin to move in the right direction. That’s what they’re asking, and that’s what we’re going to deliver.”

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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