Obama's Inaugural Address: Great Expectations
President-Elect Has Set the Bar High for His Inauguration Day Speech
By JOHN COCHRAN
Jan. 19, 2009—
For any incoming president, an inaugural address is a real challenge. For Barack Obama, it may be a stiffer challenge than for most of his predecessors.
Obama is already known to be capable of giving a great speech. The nation discovered that when it discovered him, as he delivered his memorable address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He has set the bar high. Great expectations only add to his burden. Anything less than a stirring speech Tuesday will be a disappointment.
It can't just be a laundry list of things he intends to do. Those lists are more appropriate for State of the Union addresses to Congress. Also, Obama has probably been more visible in recent weeks than any president-elect in a run-up to taking office. He has given speeches and interviews instead of saving his powder for Inauguration Day. So, we already have a reasonably good idea of what he hopes to do.
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His speech can't just be another call for bipartisanship and unity. Sure, he will be expected to talk about the need for cooperation and comity -- not only in Washington but throughout the country. But he has done that before, and so have other incoming presidents on their big days. Both of the Bushes did it, with mixed success.
George W. Bush came to office after a contentious electoral dispute saying he wanted to restore civility to Washington and calling for "goodwill and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness." His critics later claimed he failed to live up to those aspirations. In his final weeks as president, without laying blame on himself or others, he admitted to disappointment about the divisions that still exist.
His father, George H.W. Bush, wanted "to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world." Some commentators were impressed by his attempt to reach out to Democrats and by his lack of belligerence; others found his "kinder, gentler" remarks a bit treacly. Late night comics lampooned them.
It is both a blessing and a curse for inaugural speeches that they often get reduced over time to a phrase or two. Bush 41 started talking about "a thousand points of light" during the campaign, emphasized them again in his inaugural address, and continued talking about them while in office. He wanted to encourage community organizations and other volunteers to continue and increase their good works. It resulted in a new foundation committed to volunteerism. But comics, especially impersonators, and especially on "Saturday Night Live," found the phrase "thousand points of light" worthy of satire.
We know that Obama and his team have looked closely at past inaugural addresses for guidance, especially those of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. Both of Lincoln's inaugural speeches are revered by historians even though what most of us remember is another speech, the Gettysburg Address. Still, we do remember part of his second inaugural address as he urged "malice toward none, with charity for all." Words spoken in the final weeks of the Civil War. Words that took courage to utter as many in the North wanted revenge above all against the Confederacy and its leaders.
Obama has been reading Lincoln and told ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "I'm not sure whether that's been wise because every time you read that second inaugural, you start to get intimidated, especially because it is really short. You know, there's a genius to Lincoln that is not going to be matched."
Obama must find words suited to the times in which we live. He said as much to Stephanopoulos: "The main task for me in an inauguration speech & is to try to capture as best I can the moment that we are in ... and then to project confidence that if we take the right measures that we can once again be that country."
Some feel that, given the present economic and fiscal crisis, his best model would be FDR's address in 1933 to a nation still stunned by the Great Depression. Trying to bolster the nation's confidence, he famously stated that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Less famously, he warned that he would use every bit of power given to the executive branch to deal with an emergency that he likened to war. His critics and the Supreme Court would later say he exceeded that power.
We must listen closely to anything Obama says about what he will need to deal with our current problems.
As for JFK, several pundits -- conservative and liberal -- have already warned Obama not to emulate his 1961 vow "that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
The pundits say this is a time for modest ambitions abroad, not for over-reaching. Obama will need to sound tough enough to deal with al Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, et al., without seeming belligerent or arrogant.
On ABC's "This Week" he said in regard to Iran he would have "a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are." That's just the walking-a-fine-line approach with which Obama seems to do well.
Obama is well aware of how Kennedy handled that problem on a bright, bitterly cold day 48 years ago: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." Obama has quoted JFK's words before. Now, it's up to Obama to find his own original way of saying much the same thing.
Some of the best advice to Obama has come from those who urge him to be brief. John Kennedy spoke for only 14 minutes, the fourth-shortest inaugural address in history. His brevity is remarkable given the importance that Kennedy gave to inaugural remarks.
His close aide and friend, Ted Sorensen, wrote in his memoir, "Counselor," that "JFK knew an inaugural address stamps a brand on a president that can last for years, both nationally and globally, as either a warrior or a peacemaker, a bore or a source of inspiration."
Clearly, Obama is aware of the danger of being a bore. He told Stephanopoulos that in addition to Lincoln he has been reading the combined work of Kennedy and Sorenson, and that together they "did an extraordinary job." As for some of the other inaugural addresses he has consulted, Obama says they "are not as inspiring." So, don't expect him to get inspiration from a Franklin Pierce, a James Buchanan or a Warren G. Harding.
We may never know how much Obama himself is responsible for the words he utters on Tuesday. For years, historians have wrestled with the question of whether JFK's address was primarily his work or that of Sorenson. In his book, Sorensen admits he is not sure himself. He writes that the most famous line was: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Sorensen says, "The truth is that I simply don't remember where the line came from."
Sorensen has always bent over backward not to take any credit that would diminish Kennedy. To ensure that, Sorensen has done something that outrages many historians. Long after Kennedy's assassination and after talking with Jackie Kennedy, he destroyed the handwritten first draft of the speech that he had given JFK. The result, Sorensen writes, is that, "The question of ultimate credit is obscure, as it should be."
Historians will hope that Obama and his collaborators preserve their drafts, especially if it is a humdinger of a speech.
Speaking to Stephanopoulos, Obama stated modest goals for his address: "My focus is to try to be able to describe in simple, plain terms what are the challenges we face, but then also to let people know I have every intention of working with the American people so that we meet those challenges."
That is all well and good, but it sounds like an attempt to lower expectations. It also sounds like something that the likes of James Buchanan could have done. The nation and much of the world will expect more from Obama. If ever there is a time for Obama to use the oratorical skills he is given credit for, it will come in the minutes after noon on Tuesday.