Blogs > HNN > Obama's Inaugural Competition: His Predecessors and His own Eloquence

Jan 18, 2009 7:08 am

Obama's Inaugural Competition: His Predecessors and His own Eloquence

Americans love a good speech and particularly a great inaugural address. As Barack Obama prepares for his inauguration, the stakes are particularly high. He is competing with ghosts of eloquent presidents past along with his own high rhetorical standards. He is taking office as the country’s first black president, healing centuries of racism and dehumanization, during a staggering economic crisis, with America bogged down in two difficult wars, with Islamist terrorists still threatening, and amid serious concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons

Facing such troubles, it would seem that mere words can do little. But the magic of American democracy – and part of the alchemy of leadership – is that the right words and even the right gesture can make history. The inaugural address debuts the president’s Bully Pulpit, with hundreds of millions not just listening, but yearning for direction, especially today.

Back in April 30, 1789, a visibly nervous George Washington delivered the country’s first inaugural address. The great man’s humility – his awkward gestures and trembling hands -- moved the crowd. Many rejoiced that they had witnessed virtue personified, with individual and national greatness reinforcing one another.

Twelve years later, Thomas Jefferson entered office during a highly divisive period. He made the moment with words not deeds. Jefferson’s patriotic pronouncement “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” was healing, reassuring the losing Federalists that they remained Americans.

These two founders paved the way for a rich history of tone-setting inaugural moments. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln tried uniting the country by rhapsodizing about the “mystic chords of memory” binding Americans. Even though the effort failed and a bloody Civil War ensued, four years later, Lincoln welcomed back Southern rebels “with malice toward none and charity toward all.”

In 1933, facing horrific economic conditions, Franklin Roosevelt did three important things Obama should note. First, he reassured Americans, famously saying “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Next, he reoriented Americans away from materialism and excessive individualism back toward core and communal values, saying: “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Finally, and practically, Roosevelt reaffirmed faith in the Constitution as enduring but flexible, suited to meet any emergency.

More recently, in 1961, John Kennedy defined the idealism of a generation by saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And twenty years later, Ronald Reagan rejected Kennedy’s liberalism, launching the age of budget cutting and skepticism about government, saying: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

As Barack Obama speaks on Tuesday, he will repudiate Reagan’s skepticism and resurrect Kennedy’s idealism, endorse Roosevelt’s flexibility and display Lincoln’s humanity, echo Jefferson’s call for unity, and hope, amid all these grandiose aspirations, to channel Washington’s humility. A tall order, indeed. Then again, whoever expected Barack Hussein Obama to be elected?

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mary lili jory - 8/16/2009

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E. Simon - 1/22/2009

And so did Obama. Very prescient.

Obama didn't have the luxury of just being able to focus on any single one of the themes mentioned by his predecessors. This is a new era, with complex new challenges, and Obama addressed every one of them as tersely and as poignantly as anyone could, while strongly maintaining the sense of determination he wanted to convey.

Translating the themes you brought up into political directions meant all of the following:

A. Reconciling an effective government with one that won't detract from the virtues that drive individual initiative;

B. Reconciling a prosperous market economy with a need for the government to be vigilant over it;

C. Reconciling a supportive and active engagement of the world while declaiming against those who would harm or defame us for it;

D. Reconciling the need to reach outward in meeting technical and scientific challenges with the imperative of bringing us closer together and back into a sense of ourselves as part of a truly felt American community.

Obama will become known as the Great Reconciliator. People can be as skeptical as they want to, but there's really no other way to describe what he both wants and is clearly capable of doing.

Good job, Mr. Troy.

Patrick Hagopian - 1/19/2009

As long as we are analysing presidential rhetoric, let's understand the images. Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory" do not "bind" Americans because they are not cords but chords: i.e., harmonious musical notes sounded together. Lincoln is true to this image when he says they will "yet swell the chorus of the Union" when Americans are guided once again by the better angels of their nature. Chords, OK?