Some things are better the second time around. That might be said of President Obama's two inaugural addresses. Monday's version, delivered to a smaller, more subdued crowd outside the nation's Capitol, packed more inspirational punch and embraced a more ambitious and explicitly progressive agenda than did his first inaugural message four years ago.

The best presidential speeches tell America's story. That's what Obama's inaugural message did. Both explicitly and subtly, he borrowed from the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural message and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s great "I Have a Dream" sermon on the National Mall.

Obama used those words to impart context and meaning to the tasks that confront the nation today. Like previous challenges, he emphasized, today's work must be done by "we the people."

"The American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias," he said.

Without naming his political opponents or extending an olive branch to Republicans, the Democratic president acknowledged that their "skepticism of central authority" is an abiding and legitimate American theme.

But history teaches that "preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," Obama said. So does securing peace, prosperity and justice for all Americans.

He's right: It will take citizen participation to slow and respond to climate change, educate the workforce of tomorrow, rebuild the nation's infrastructure, rein in health care costs and meet the needs of the growing elderly population. It will take an engaged population "to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.

"But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American," the president said.

Obama invited Americans to wider participation in the national project, but stopped short of calling for individual service and sacrifice, as President John F. Kennedy memorably did a half-century ago. Obama's message would have been stronger had he included such a call.

Americans deserve to hear straight talk from their leaders about what the times will require of them. They heard too little such talk in last year's presidential campaign. With Monday's speech, Obama began a new conversation with the American people, one that did well to emphasize Americans' shared destiny and collective responsibility for nation-building.

We hope to hear more from him in coming weeks about how all citizens can contribute to the 224-year-old American project.


An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.