Presidential speeches are a mixed bag some are soaring with inspirational lines that we remember forever, such as John Kennedys, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. Some help change the course of history, such as Ronald Reagans line, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! That speech was given at the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall in June 1987 and helped convince Eastern Europeans under Soviet control (and ultimately Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev himself) that freedom was inevitable. Other presidential speeches have set a negative tone that defined an entire presidency Jimmy Carters malaise speech in July 1979 for example.
So where does President Barack Obamas inaugural speech on Tuesday rank in the echelon of Presidential orations? It was certainly not the most soaring, even among his own speeches: his basic stump speech contained the rhetoric and red meat issues that left liberals enthralled, this one largely did not. It was not as detailed as his convention acceptance speech, where he discussed his various programmatic plans at length. Though the speech had no ask not lines, his best moment came when discussing foreign policy, when he warned, 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.
This was a somber, mature speech, in which he quoted scripture, The time has come to set aside childish things, and acknowledged the enormity of the challenges before us. Of course, each president inherits various challenges and each tends to overstate the enormity of what they personally will face. Each president also assures us that they have the wisdom and courage to handle daunting problems. Despite all of that, its impossible to deny that the beginning of Barack Obamas presidency is simply different.
He is different, as he acknowledged when he said that, 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. In breaking the color barrier at the very pinnacle of American life, Obamas presidency is something of a cleansing for all of us a cleansing of ugliness from our past that we hope is washed away, never to return.
And what hes offering seems different as well. It was interesting that it was not Lincoln, with whom he has been so endlessly and prematurely compared, who he invoked, but George Washington. When all seemed lost, General Washington wrote to the people of his young country: Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].
Washingtons greatest speech, and one of the greatest pieces of American political writing, was his Farewell Address in which he warned against factions and infighting. Washington was concerned as the new country faced challenges from abroad of its being torn apart by power struggles and divisions from within. Obama echoed Washingtons sentiments when he said, On this day we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
An inaugural address is where a president usually lays out the philosophy by which he will govern, and though it may not have been what many wanted to hear, on Tuesday Obama spoke loud and clear: he is ushering in a new era of responsibility. He told us that this new era will require hard work and sacrifice from all of us, along with honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. He said he is going to reform government (a pledge that we hear from every new president) and that if were still arguing about whether government is too big or too small, then were asking the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking whether programs work. If programs work, they will stay, if not, programs will end. (Note that he will need cooperation from the Democrat-controlled congress to end programs created by legislation.)
In his apparent willingness to tackle tough problems that other presidents have ducked such as true reform of the Social Security and Medicare programs (in fairness, George W. Bush tried, but Congress wouldnt let him) Obama, by his words anyway, reminds me of Ronald Reagan, a president is most often successful in making true reforms when its in an area of acknowledged strength for his party. One reason Reagan successfully negotiated a sweeping arms control treaty was because no one could question his bona fides on national security. Thats because early in his presidency Reagan had the courage to defy public opinion, and literally millions of protestors in Europe, in deploying Pershing missiles in West Germany.
Obama has no such track record of course, but everything hes said and done since November 4 indicates a willingness to surround himself with good, strong advisers and to tackle the tough issues. To some on the right, mentioning the new and untested President Obama in the same breath with Ronald Reagan, whom most conservatives view as the best president of the 20th century, is heresy. And yet, I have Republican friends who voted for Obama primarily because they saw many of Reagans best qualities in the young senator from Illinois. As Obama said on Tuesday, 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. Only time will tell.
Denise Dunbar is a policy analyst who formerly worked for the CIA and the Virginia Department of Social Services.