Barack Obama has always been about the words. And so it was on Tuesday. For all the grandeur of the setting and the breathtaking and seemingly endless crowd arrayed before him, it was still about the words.
He officially began his improbable journey on a frigid day in Springfield, Ill. a little less than two years ago with words that promised he was running "not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation."
Tuesday, he took his office and now he will begin on the transformation. It is not guaranteed. It will not be easy. But he will, he said, make a start.
He looked very serious, almost somber, throughout his inaugural ceremony. And as he has done repeatedly in the last few weeks, he listed the barriers America faces, the mountains we have yet to climb.
"Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred," he said. "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."
He talked about lost homes and shuttered businesses and then talked about something even worse: "a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights."
But this, he said, he will not let happen. "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."
And called for what Americans say they are willing to provide, but have not in recent years been called upon to do: sacrifice.
"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," he said. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
The speech had political moments. President Obama served notice that he was ending the era of Ronald Reagan and those who cling to the idea that government must be small because it is the problem and not the solution.
"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," Obama said. "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."
Obama also signaled the end of the era of George W. Bush, which will be remembered by some for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, waterboarding, and an erosion of civil liberties all done in the name of national security:
"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," Obama said. "Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please."
Obama also addressed a political concern within his own party: Democrats who remain fearful that he will delay his pledge to end the war in Iraq. Without mentioning a timetable, Obama said: "We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan."
And then boldly he reached out a hand to the Muslim world, but also remonstrated extremists within it. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said. "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."
He continued: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
His reference to the historic fact that he was the nation's first African-American president was brief but poignant: "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
Will any of these words someday be carved in marble? That depends not on the words, but on the presidency.
Nobody remembers the words of failed administrations. Great words are made immortal by great presidents.
Barack Obama now has this burden and this opportunity. His journey and ours begins.