With one swift stroke—just 18 minutes of words, delivered in a stern tone with a steel gaze—Barack Hussein Obama sliced through the usual clutter and ambiguities of American politics and revealed what it looks like when history turns on a pivot.
The Bush years are over. Obama’s inaugural address could not have made the ending more stark, with repeated lines signaling a new direction and offering veiled but unmistakable indictments of what the 44th president called a “failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
The speech was less precise about what the Obama years will mean. Indeed, the new president tried to make the frighteningly improvisational nature of the moment—his administration swimming from its first instant to deal with a gasping economy at home and unfinished wars abroad—into a source of strength.
America’s confidence, he implored, should flow from “the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”
That line most vividly suggested the most important message of the speech: Obama believes he needs vast power and vast flexibility to achieve his goals.
It is clear he believes his own rhetorical mastery, harnessed to a tradition of great presidents and great crises earlier in American history, will give him the power and room to maneuver that he needs. He pleaded for understanding that the nation’s challenges “will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America—they will be met.”
His consistent rhetorical device was to portray any skeptics of his own plans for “action, bold and swift,” as sour defeatists and “cynics,” at odds with the American tradition.
“Now there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans,” Obama declared. “Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”
Obama has ample reason to believe in the power of words. His race for the presidency was sent aloft with one powerful speech in Boston in 2004. Those words at the Democratic Convention sparked interest in the memoir he had written a decade earlier—only fueling the interest in a politician who thought and expressed himself with a fluency and instinct for nuance that was the opposite of the guttural certitudes that defined the 43rd presidency.
Nor did words fail Obama this time, as he looked out at a sea of supporters from the steps of the Capitol. If anything, this was a more disciplined speech than Obama sometimes gives. The gassy, vainglorious flights to which he was occasionally prone during the campaign—“We are the ones we have been waiting for”—were absent here. So were the most obvious, and arguably over-indulgent, references to Abraham Lincoln, Obama’s favorite president and one in whose imagery he has often wrapped himself.
Even so, Obama’s more austere rhetoric Tuesday was deeply woven with American history, all employed for contemporary political reasons. There were references to forebears who “fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.” The message: Current problems—and the sacrifices he may ask to meet them—are mild by comparison.
The address also had a deep lineage in the language of presidential predecessors.
There were echoes, for instance, of John F. Kennedy. While Obama declared that “America’s ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake,” he was nodding to JFK’s inaugural message: “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and al who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
More subtly, Obama’s exhortation for Americans to “choose our better history,” was a more secular version of Lincoln’s call to follow “the better angels of our nature,” in his first inaugural address. And when Obama vowed to usher in a “new era of peace,” he adopted the same construction Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address, promising a “new birth of freedom.”
More startling to hear in Obama’s address were echoes of President Jimmy Carter, in traces of the so-called (but inaccurately named) “malaise speech” that the 39th president delivered amid a weak economy and weaker political standing in the summer of 1979.
“The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America,” Carter warned then. “We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.”
Obama on Tuesday warned that “less measurable but no less profound” than the country’s economic struggles “is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”
Other presidents slipped into the speech in less obvious ways, as Obama picked up a favorite expression of Theodore Roosevelt-era progressives, “standing pat,” when he told the country: “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed.”
TR used the term as a way of dismissing arguments for permissive business regulation and passive industrial policy. Obama used it to heighten the country’s sense of urgency about economic recovery and reform.
The other Roosevelt, Franklin, found a more prominent place in Obama’s speech, as the Illinoisan picked up FDR’s 1932 commitment to “bold, persistent experimentation” in response to the country’s economic problems.
“It is common sense to take a method and try it,” FDR said in a commencement address that year. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Tuesday, Obama echoed Roosevelt in his pledge to take “action, bold and swift,” and to scrutinize government programs by asking “not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.
“Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward,” Obama said. “Where the answer is no, programs will end.”
And in his upbeat assertion that American “workers are no less productive than when this crisis began,” Obama followed FDR’s reassuring claim: “The people of the United States have not failed.”
Obama also used history to make a sharp-edged argument against the man sitting just a few feet from him: George W. Bush.
The speech began with a polite nod to his predecessor for his “service to our nation” and for his “generosity and cooperation” during the transition.
But the balance of the speech included line after line making clear that Obama views himself as an abrupt break in policy, style, and values. “As for our common defense, we reject the false choice between our safety and our ideals”—a seeming criticism of Bush’s balance of security and civil liberties in the wake of September 11, 2001. Notions of “the rule of law and the rights of man,” he said, must not be surrendered “for expedience’s sake.”
“Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions,” Obama said. He called for “a new way forward” with the Mslim world.
The cumulative effect of all these digs was to make a counter-intuitive argument. For all the novelty of an African-American becoming president, it was actually Obama who represents the dominant American tradition, and Bush who represented a radical experiment coming to an end.
To the television audience, this argument was helped by some powerful visuals. The 43rd president’s father, now 84, arrived on a cane. The younger Bush’s vice president, who turns 68 next week, arrived in a wheelchair.
Obama’s address did include one direct reference to his one achievement he earned simply by being elected as a black man. The country has reason to celebrate, he said, when “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
For the most part, though, Obama sought validation and the governing consent he needs by offering himself as something familiar rather than as something new.
“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new,” he said. “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 old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”
Those are modest words—and the evidence is that Obama hopes to invoke them to achieve bold and even audacious ends.
Alexander Burns contributed to this story.