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New President, 'New Era Of Responsibility'

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

His words were more somber than some expected, given some of the soaring speeches of his recent past. But if Barack Obama's speech was quiet, the goals laid out were vast. He spoke of no less than remaking America and also changing its relationship with the world. One of the many people listening around the world was NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: As the Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren put it in his invocation, yesterday was a hinge point of history. The first African-American president of the United States, with his hand on Abraham Lincoln's Bible, taking an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, which originally counted a black man as three-fifths of a person. But President Obama barely mentioned race yesterday. Instead, he wasted no time describing what he called the gathering clouds and raging storms the country confronts right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL SPEECH)

INSKEEP: Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. 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 and prepare the nation for a new age.

LIASSON: Mr. Obama didn't describe what hard choices Americans will have to make. That, presumably, will come later on. But he did promise bold, swift action to fix the economy, and he laid out a list of his priorities, many of which are already proposed in the stimulus plan Congress is considering.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL SPEECH)

INSKEEP: We will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

LIASSON: All this we can do, Mr. Obama said, and this we will do. In addition to the economic stimulus, health care and energy, President Obama is planning the huge and growing budget deficit and reforming Medicare and Social Security. All in his first term. It's a hugely ambitious program, and he acknowledged yesterday that some wonder if our political system can handle so much big change. But he asserted that one debate has already been settled, about the need to recalibrate the balance between government and the market.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL SPEECH)

INSKEEP: What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them. That the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. Whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

LIASSON: Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem. Bill Clinton declared the era of big government was over. Yesterday, Barack Obama said the market has spun out of control, and he argued that only a better, smarter government can provide the balance wheel. If there was one memorable slogan in the speech, it was "a new era of responsibility." Mr. Obama called on Americans to summon some old-fashioned virtues, hard work and honesty, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL SPEECH)

INSKEEP: 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. Duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

LIASSON: For presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, the speech recalled the words of another young president.

D: There were the echoes of John F. Kennedy in the call for the American people to realize that they're going to have to pitch in, that this is not something that government alone can solve, which is another way of saying that this isn't something he alone is going to be able to solve. And that it's going to require a change of attitude, a willingness to work hard, a willingness to accept discipline.

LIASSON: On foreign policy, President Obama repeated his promise to use more soft power, saying we could have our ideals and safety at the same time. To the Muslim world, he offered a new way forward based on mutual interest and respect. But he also had a warning to those who might test a young, relatively inexperienced new president.

(SOUNDBITE OF INAUGURAL SPEECH)

INSKEEP: We will not apologize for our way of life. Nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now, that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Today, President Obama will spend his first full day at the White House and he will focus on foreign policy, convening a meeting of his national security council to begin planning for a withdrawal from Iraq and an escalation in Afghanistan. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: January 22, 2009 at 2:01 PM EST
The story said that the Constitution "originally counted a black man as three-fifths of a person." In fact, the three-fifths rule applied only to slaves, not to free blacks.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.