WASHINGTON -- Wondering if his publisher liked the manuscript of "Les Miserables," Victor Hugo sent a terse note: "?" His publisher replied as tersely: "!" That was the nation's response to Barack Obama's inaugural address, even though -- or perhaps because -- one of his themes, delicately implied, was that Americans do not just have a problem, they are a problem.
"The time has come," he said pointedly, "to set aside childish things." Things, presumably, such as the pandemic indiscipline that has produced a nation of households as overleveraged as is the government from which the householders insistently demand more goods and services than they are willing to pay for. "We remain," the president said, "a young nation." Which, even if true, would be no excuse for childishness. And it is not true. The United States is older, as a national polity, than Germany or Italy, among many others.
Obama's first words -- "I stand here today humbled by the task before us" -- echoed the first paragraph of the first inaugural address. George Washington, although elected unanimously by the Electoral College, confessed "anxieties" and adopted the tone of a servant "called" to crushing duties:
"The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies."
The presidency that awed Washington -- or so he said -- was soft wax on which he could leave any impress he wanted. But because of his unchallengeable pre-eminence, and because many Americans considered executive power a standing temptation to monarchical abuses, Washington, who could have been akin to a king, was almost histrionically humble.
The first president was head of one branch, not yet the dominant one, of a federal government housed in a few buildings on the southern tip of mostly agricultural or forested Manhattan. In 1801, Jefferson in his address said that "the sum of good government" is not very much -- to be "wise and frugal," to "restrain men from injuring one another," to "leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits" and to "not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." The federal government had decamped to a Potomac River village, which, although unprepossessing, was commensurate with the federal government's modest competencies.
Now, however, the ubiquitous federal government struggles with tasks, from managing the economy to inspiriting the citizenry, that were not considered government tasks until long after 1789. Today, when many Americans seem to want in the presidency a semi-royal presence of the sort that Washington eschewed, inaugural addresses ring with regal confidence.
Obama's preternatural confidence is intended to be infectious. His presidency begins as an exercise in psychotherapy for a nation suffering a crisis of confidence. But neither the nation nor the government that accurately represents it is constructed for consensus. And he will be unable to fault his office for his frustrations because, more than any predecessor except the first, the 44th president enters office with the scope of its powers barely circumscribed by law, and even less by public opinion.
Obama's unprecedented power derives from the astonishing events of the last four months that have made indistinct the line between public and private sectors. Neither the public as currently alarmed, nor Congress as currently constituted, nor the Constitution as currently construed is an impediment to hitherto unimagined executive discretion in allocating vast portions of the nation's wealth.
He acquires power just as the retreat of the state has been abruptly reversed. The retreat began 30 years ago this May, when Margaret Thatcher became Britain's prime minister; it accelerated 20 months later when Ronald Reagan was inaugurated; it acquired an exclamation point a year after that, when adverse market forces compelled French President Francois Mitterrand to abandon socialism in a nation receptive to it.
Obama, whose trumpet never sounds retreat, overstated the scale of our difficulties with his comparison of them with those the nation faced in the almost extinguishing winter of 1776-77. Still, the lyrics of cultural traditionalism with which he ended -- the apostle of "change we can believe in" urging the nation to believe in "old" values -- reinforced his theme of responsibility, summoning the nation up from childishness.