A rich history of American Presidential rhetoric echoed up from the Inaugural Address of Barack Obama

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 01/26/2009

Given that Senator Obama rose to fame on the wings of a great speech--an historic speech delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention--the irony of President Obama's inauguration was how small a role his address seemed to play.  What took center stage that icy January 20 in Washington, DC was not the words, but the pilgrims; not the power of a speech, but the passion of the witnessing. 

The Gift
Any analysis of President Obama's inaugural address must begin with this caveat: To reduce the inauguration of President Obama to a speech--to somehow suggest that the significance of that day can be found in a ten minute address--would be to commit an act of disrespect for what took place on that day.

January 20, 2009, was a day of personal and national transformation.  Following 8 years of American obsession with the violence of 'ground zero,' the inauguration in Washington, DC, was 'day zero' of new era. To be there was to witness something once in a lifetime. 

There were, of course, emotions everywhere that day.  I do not doubt nor dismiss the power of any of the many and various feelings flowing through the millions of Americans who braved the cold and the crowds on the Mall. We were all together, we were all equal, we were all elated.  And yet, what sticks in my mind and in my heart were the tears on the faces of people I had never seen before, and whom I shall never see again.  Watching their faces, I felt as both an insider and an outsider, close and far, old and young. To stand on the National Mall amidst so many people--people of all colors, religions, and even nationalities who had traveled far and wide to witness this moment-- was to be profoundly humbled. 

One quick anecdote sums it up for me.

As I jumped up and down to keep my feet warm, I noticed two African-American ladies standing behind me in fur coats.  They must have been sisters as they were almost identical twins.  They stood silently, for hours, never shouting, never cheering, applauding only rarely, not even speaking to each other. Their faces revealed their condition: they were filled with emotions wrapped around them like heavy lace.   While other folks shouted and hooted the whole morning-- the group of hipster teenagers to my side; a group of middle-aged women in football parkas to my left; and a bunch of pre-teens with college-age group leaders to my right--these two women were silent.  I thought about them the entire morning, and when the inauguration speech was over, I resolved finally to turn around and give each of them a hug.  But when I turned they were gone, vanished into the unimaginably large crowd that drained for hours through the DC streets.

When I think of President Obama's inauguration, I will think of those women and their silent witnessing before I think of any speech. I will never forget them, wrapped up with emotions strong enough to choke out all sound. And I know that I am not alone. I know that millions of people stood amidst a jubilant crowd and watched other people overwhelmed with emotions, even as we were overwhelmed ourselves.   And by being there, and witnessing, we were given a gift that can never be taken from us.

The Speech
Four moments in Obama's inaugural address struck me.  Each of these moments reminded me of the rhetoric of prior presidents.  I consider them here one at a time.

1. Obama's Jimmy Carter Moment
It may come as a surprise to realize it, but Obama began his speech with overtures to Jimmy Carter's 1979 televised speech often referred to as the 'Malaise' or 'Crisis of Confidence' speech.  Obama wasted no time in his inaugural stating that the problems we face in this country are not just economic, not just environmental, not just military.  We face a problem of national confidence:

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics.  Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights. (link)

Obama's opening move in his speech, in other words, was not just to acknowledge the various crises we face, but to reframe the idea of crisis in terms of national character.   The similarity to Carter's speech in 1979 is unmistakable, as are the circumstances.  With Bush on the stage, Obama's touch was much lighter, but the message was just as clear:  we are in trouble as much because of the markets, Iraq, and the environment as we are from the poor decisions and bad leadership of the past 8 years. 

The solution to the crisis?  To 'reaffirm' the great principles on which America's promise firmly rests, to right the ship by rediscovering the purpose of American life:

Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less.  It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those that prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.  Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things

I doubt we will see many T-shirts celebrating 'the makers of things,' but it was a phrase in Obama's speech that focused our attention.  This was Obama's way of reframing national politics in pragmatic terms.  The focus on ideology is over, he was telling us.  Now is the time for 'doers' and for 'makers of things.'  We will not rest on abstract ideas by which we simply eliminate taxes and then sit back and wait for the economy to magically recover.  We will use our resources to make things.  And by doing, by taking risks, we will move forward.

2. Obama's FDR Moment
Beyond the general opening references to 'hope' that Obama packed into the front of the speech--the obligatory references to his campaign rhetoric--the start of his speech reminded me overwhelmingly of FDR's first inauguration address.  This passage from Obama's speech in  particular took me back to the 1933:

We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. (link)

Fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will recognize Obama's allusion to the 1936 film swing time.

The music and lyrics might be Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, but the Depression-era optimism is pure FDR.  Obama's speech reached for this idiom of financial crisis optimism by making two claims that FDR also made: 

1. Our crisis may seem financial, but it is really a crisis of optimism
2. The solution comes through hard work and belief in ourselves

Obama made these two points in the next passage of his speech, which sounded like this:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.  The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift.  And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.  We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We'll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.  And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.  All this we can do.  All this we will do.

This 'Can Do' passage was the first get-your-heart-racing passage of Obama's address, and not just for fans of soft-shoe.   Notice the prominence of the word 'work' in the opening sentence. 'Work' invokes a broader narrative that Obama has already returned to a few times since January 20.  There is a paradox in our current situation, he is telling us, a paradox that we must grasp if we are to move forward:  so many people are out of work, but there is so much work to be done.

The idea of shifting the frame to work at a time when the nation is concerned about a financial crisis is a hat tip to FDR who, in his inaugural speech, brushed aside the idea of a financial crisis to focus people's attention on the pride of achievement through hard work.

3. Obama's JFK Moment
Now, having heard Carter and FDR, the next voice that came through in Obama's speech was that of JFK.  The themes from JFK Obama used include the great 'journey' as well as 'service.'  But beyond the concepts,  Obama borrowed also from JFK's voice. 

Try this experiment.  Clear your throat,  sit up straight, and read the following passage from Obama's inaugural speech in your best Boston Brahman impersonation of President Kennedy's iconic voice:

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.  For us, they toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth.  For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn. 

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.  They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

 This is the journey we continue today. (link)

Ahah!  Caught red handed--this passage is ripped from the pages--and the voice--of JFK.  "They saw America s bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, greater than all the difference of birth or wealth or faction.  Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for"--you get the point. 

Like Kennedy, Obama's speech is laced with a healthy dose of social responsibility.  Our country was founded by people who sacrificed for the good of others, but for too long we have been living for ourselves, both Presidents told us.  Now we must return to a time of service and sacrifice of ourselves for the greater good.  It is a classic, timeless idea.

In this section that sounded so much like JFK, I was struck by how much Obama must have steeped himself in the actual speeches of earlier presidents.  George W. Bush delivered two inaugural addresses that seemed as familiar to him intellectually and emotionally as rented tuxedos. But here was Obama giving a speech that seemed to echo out the depths of previous Presidents, where his voice mixed with the voices of others. There was,  in other words, a gentleman-scholar quality of Obama's speech that leaves gives one reason to pause.

4. Lyndon Johnson
For those who lived through the Vietnam War era, it may come as bittersweet to hear Lyndon Johnson's voice in President Obama's inaugural address.  That was, and continues to be, such a contested and conflicted time.  But Johnson's voice did enter into Obama's address clearly in this passage near the end of the speech when he addressed the 'Muslim World' and 'poor nations':

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.  And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect.  For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

It may seem like a small thing, but to bring a consciousness of poverty to a Presidential speech is to harken back to Johnson's time. But it was also Johnson who spoke directly about what America must do once it had managed to deal with the problem of having 'plenty.'   Those passages from Obama's speech struck me as a new version of Johnson's 'Great Society'--a Great Society 2.0, so to speak, reworked for a global reality.  And if there was an iconic phrase in the speech, I believe it came  in this passage:

For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

For my money, that short phrase is both haunting, timely, and deeply profound.  For decades, the conservative movement has been telling the American public and the world that we must face the future by denying the value of just about every form of change in existence.  Obama, in just 11 short words, wipes away that entire conservative ideology and replaces it with a statement almost inexplicably humble.  The world has changed.  We must change with it.

It is no exaggeration to say that tens of millions of people have been waiting their whole lives to hear that kind of simple and direct statement from the President of the United States.  And while the abstract leitmotif of 'change' was emblazoned all over Obama's campaign, it was not until he inserted it into this basic progressive statement that it begins to make sense.  We simply must change.  For to not change is to remove ourselves from the world.  And we simply cannot do that.

In the end then, both in the witnessing of others who attended the event, and analyzing Obama's speech, Obama's inauguration was a profound  moment.  Albeit not a watershed in American rhetoric, it was a long overdue and welcome new beginning nonetheless. 

© Jeffrey Feldman 2009, Frameshop

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