FOR a politician carried to prominence by his extraordinary ability to loft a rhetorical phrase, Barack Obama was remarkably restrained in yesterday's inaugural address. He simply said what, in our view, had to be said, fashioning clean breaks between the reckless governance of the nation's past and what the new President sees as its more disciplined future.
If Mr. Obama's no-nonsense speech made for some uncomfortable moments of self-realization on the part of the outgoing administration and the gathered citizenry, well, that's the purpose of plain talk.
Indeed, only a few paragraphs into the 18 1/2-minute address, Mr. Obama pointedly declared the weakened economy to be "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."
He did not mention ex-President George W. Bush, sitting just a few feet away, nor the quick-buck artists on Wall Street who were given rein to plunder the economy to their benefit, but anyone paying attention knew what he meant.
And surely embarrassment should have reddened the faces of the assembled congressional delegation when Mr. Obama proclaimed "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics."
For those cynics who assert that the man from Hawaii by way of Illinois has "too many big plans" to cure the nation's ills, he had this rejoinder: "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 asked today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works "
Even more striking was a declaration of independence from the odious practices of warrantless wiretapping and extraordinary rendition that have marked the so-called war on terrorism.
Mr. Obama firmly rejected "as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. These ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
To other nations and the forces of terrorism that lurk around the world, Mr. Obama was equally forceful in rebuking the go-it-alone policies of the last eight years. He promised to work with international friends and foes alike on lessening the nuclear threat and the problems of global warming.
What the nation will not do, he said, is "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."
Those are strong words, but the meaning is unambiguous - and necessary - coming from a President who has just completed an unlikely two-year journey from relative obscurity to the White House.
Words, of course, are just rhetoric unless backed by action. But President Obama at least sees ahead a fresh path, one that once again aligns the nation's innate strengths with its ideals.