Our new president has asked us a question. It took him exactly 15 minutes.
The question: What kind of people are we?
What kind of character lies beneath this patchwork of black, white, olive and every skin shade in between?
"Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less," he said.
"It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."
Easy or hard?
It sounded like a speech, a simple call to heed our better nature.
But listen again. President Barack Obama has asked us a question.
What kind of people do we want to be?
Isn't an inaugural speech supposed to be ceremonial? Words that ring for the occasion, then safely vanish once they're out in the open air? Rhetorical exercises to which presidents can point as evidence work is under way?
This address wasn't like that. The president has posed a question to the people.
What exactly are we made of?
Do we want it easy or do we want it hard?
"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are true."
That doesn't sound like a question. But it is.
Do we want riches or the richness of acting on principle?
Do we want a quick fix or lasting security?
Do we want equal time or equal opportunity?
"The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
We have to choose
This president is asking us what we really want. He's asking what values we will choose and employ in adversity. And he wants us to know it's up to us, not him,
"For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."
Voters sent this message two months ago, on election day: We want a change in the nation's direction. At the most perilous moment most can remember, Americans gave Barack Obama their overwhelming confidence.
In return, on inauguration day, he offered them a healthy dose of tough love.
"At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents."
This new president apparently thinks highly of us. He has a lot of faith in the character and the capabilities of the American people.
And he has asked us a question: What kind of people are we?
The answer: We have set our feet to the rugged path.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Schulken is associate editor for the Observer. E-mail email@example.com.