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Obama's Sober Sermon on the Steps

02/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


WASHINGTON, DC -- The new president and the throng that turned out to cheer him and hear him today were on two very different missions. The crowd had come to celebrate. Obama had come to deliver a sober sermon.

I arrived at the Capitol early, and as the morning progressed, and the time for the Inaugural ceremony grew near, you could feel the anticipation and the excitement building. Chants of "O-ba-ma... O-ba-ma" washed forward from the hundreds of thousands crowding the National Mall, including right after he was first introduced as president.

But the new president wasn't in the mood to be distracted, and cut the chant short with a quick "thank you." The first line of his speech -- "I stand here today humbled by the task before us" -- was a solemn reality check. His mention of the "gathering clouds and raging storms" that greet his new administration was intended to immediately distinguish his presidency from others that began amidst "rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace." It was clear from the beginning that the speech was a warning bell.

For me, the most compelling moment of the speech came when he quoted the Bible. While we remain a young nation, he said, "the time has come to set aside childish things."

There was something very powerful about watching this relatively young man, one of the youngest to ever hold the highest office in the land, telling the American people to grow up.

He touched on the same theme when he described our "badly weakened economy" as a consequence of not just "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."

Mature people make hard choices; childish ones, in the words of the new president, "prefer leisure over work" and "seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

Time to grow up.

Obama also made a point of honoring "the doers, the makers of things." As opposed to those who make thing up -- like, say, credit default swaps.

The speech was ultimately optimistic: "The challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many... But know this, America: They will be met." Indeed, the speech was reassuring in a Rooseveltian "the only thing we have to fear..." way. But the reassurance came with a caveat. We will overcome the many challenges facing us -- but only if we grow up.

"The greatness of our nation," he reminded us, "is never a given. It must be earned." And it will only be achieved if we realize that we are not, as a child believes, the center of the universe but a part of a greater whole. A whole built on values that "are old": "honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism."

The new president also signaled that he will put the need for service front and center in his presidency, lauding those who demonstrate "the spirit of service: a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves."

And he brought things full circle, closing his Sermon on the Steps by reminding his buoyant flock "that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

The times are hard and they are clearly a-changing.