How History Shapes Barack Obama's Inauguration

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Presidential inaugurations are quadrennial moments of renewal. No matter how bitter and angry a campaign has been, Americans tend to stand back, focus on the good qualities of their newly elected leader, and give him a break for at least a while. That's why most new presidents get a honeymoon, however brief, from their critics, and why the first months of a new administration tend to be among the most productive.

What Americans want in an inaugural address is a sense of vision and reaffirmation of what's best in their country. Actually, the most memorable of such speeches also capture and encourage the zeitgeist of their times. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln called on Americans to preserve their Union and heed "the better angels of our nature." In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt inspired courage amid the Depression when he said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In 1961, John F. Kennedy called for passing the torch to a "new generation." In 1981, with the long-running Iran-hostage crisis and growing economic woes, Ronald Reagan gave a dispirited nation new hope when he declared, "We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal."

Great expectations. Striking this balance between vision and effort, between hope and sacrifice, will be especially important when Barack Obama stands on the Capitol's West Front on January 20 and takes the oath of office as the 44th president—and the first African-American to hold that office. "The inaugural address has got to soar," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Reagan. "What America needs right now is inspiration. This is not about beginning a new chapter. This is about opening a new book."

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