In content, Obama's speech was more compelling. His vivid assurances of toughness on national security were genuinely reassuring. When is the last time we heard a national Democrat admit that "our nation is at war" and promise to "defeat" American enemies? His discussion of the role of government was more sophisticated than in any inaugural since Ronald Reagan's in 1981 -- though his post-partisan appeal more resembled Bill Clinton's Third Way than Reagan's firm assertion of limited government.
And Obama's main argument -- for a "new era of responsibility" -- was traditional without being tired. From the beginning, Americans have displayed a unique combination of revolutionary idealism and moral conservatism. American presidents have generally asserted that the achievement of radical or progressive ideals such as unity and social justice requires a return to timeless American values such as responsibility and self-restraint, charity and the end of malice. Woodrow Wilson, for example, argued, "there has been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great. Our thought has been, 'Let every man look out for himself. ... '" But the answer, he continued, would be found in restoring "the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning and have always carried at our hearts."
Similarly, Obama's address diagnosed a time of "standing pat, of protecting narrow interests." And he rooted his vision of social and economic restoration in the renewal of moral virtues -- courage, honesty, fair play, loyalty, tolerance, patriotism and duty. He insisted on using the word "virtue" and explained that such convictions are not merely useful but "true."
This shows a deep understanding of America, which remains moral to its core -- and a mature understanding of American leadership. Obama's argument should appeal to many conservatives, who would never accept a case for progressive policies based on relativistic or libertarian moral views. Like Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Obama positioned himself as a conservative revolutionary -- attempting to re-create our country by reasserting the traditional moral principles that gave it birth.
This type of insight makes President Obama a formidable political figure -- and if he really believes and defends these ideals, perhaps a formidable American leader.
Heading into this inaugural address, many expected the speech to be rhetorically masterful, but perhaps ideologically shallow. Instead, we heard a speech that was rhetorically flat and substantively interesting. On his first day in office, President Obama has managed to surprise.