If Obama's inaugural address set a new tone, his speech to Congress drew a new map.
It is a measure of the Republican Party's intellectual bankruptcy that the best slam its handpicked standard bearer, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, could muster against President Barack Obama's commanding call for national renewal was a pathetic whine suggesting citizens can't trust this White House because the previous White House botched the response to Hurricane Katrina. Memo to the Republicans: it was your guy and your party that botched that one — and so much else.
As the electric enthusiasm generated by Obama's speech to Congress runs its natural course, as the right-wing know-nothings counterattack, it is important to remember this: Obama has a plan to confront a still-unfolding economic crisis. His critics do not.
Is his plan foolproof? Of course not. Its genius lies in its breathtaking ambition.
Obama seeks to confront the challenges of today by focusing on the future. The collective pain we suffer as a society can be endured and overcome, he argued, if, as a people, we exert our collective will and focus on a better tomorrow.
Like a good preacher, Obama taught. Like a good teacher, he inspired. And like an effective leader, he told the nation where he was going.
If Obama's powerfully understated inaugural address set a new tone, his speech to Congress drew a new map.
The president reminded and reassured the nation that government exists to serve the people. Just one year ago, that would have been a novel idea.
Obama was challenging and inspirational. But most important of all, he defined the contours of a new age.
Obama's America will not torture, will not maintain offshore prison camps, and at home will not pit the haves against the have-nots.
After years of Republican divide-and-dominate politics, the notion that we are again one nation, one people united in a common purpose, is as refreshing as it is radical.
Perhaps the most telling assumption built into Obama's address was that the war in Iraq is over — if not as a fact, at least as a concept.
The focus now is on a timetable for withdrawal. At 19 or so months, the schedule Obama appears to be setting is at least three months longer than hoped for. And it is troubling and problematic that a significant number of troops — as many as 50,000 — are expected to remain in place. But gone is the hollow rhetoric. The dispiriting sense that comes from waging a seemingly perpetual war for ever-shifting ends at long last appears to be dissolving.
The problem still remains of extracting America from Afghanistan, while simultaneously preventing Pakistan from becoming a greater threat to its neighbors and the world. Moving to end one of two military quagmires, however, is good news — at least for now.
The meat of Obama's message was domestic, the most ambitious and problematic aspects of which will involve fulfilling a promise to reform and extend health care, while at the same time setting a goal to tame and reduce a skyrocketing federal deficit.
That these issues now are measured in trillions of dollars, as opposed to mere billions, is sobering.
The only factor that keeps this discussion within the realm of the possible is Obama's crystal-clear intention to increase taxes — at some unspecified point in the near future — on households making more than $250,000 a year, as well as on capital gains.
When all is said and done, raising taxes on the more affluent is going to be one of the major means of paying for the national economic rescue now under way, and will help to make real the program he outlined.
This will no doubt spark strong — even vicious — opposition, not only from Republicans, but also from conservative Democrats.
By urging America to focus on the future, Obama is effectively preparing to gird the nation for political battle.
By repeatedly calling for bipartisan cooperation, Obama, of course, is maneuvering for political position. But, even so, he seeks the high ground because he believes that the only way out of our current troubles is to unite around common purpose.
By fighting for a vision of a more humane America, along with an America of shared pain, Obama seeks to engender a sense of national purpose and national community.
That is what his address to the nation was all about.