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The Past as a Guide for Obama’s Address

Posted by tothewire on January 19, 2009

barackandlincoln

WASHINGTON — On a family outing to the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, President-elect Barack Obama was starkly reminded by an unlikely adviser of what is at stake in his Inaugural Address.

As his family studied Lincoln’s inaugural words, carved into the memorial’s stone, they began discussing Mr. Obama’s own inaugural speech, he told CNN. His 10-year-old daughter, Malia, then turned to him and blurted out: “First African-American president. Better be good.”

That special burden just adds weight to a task that is already daunting — following his eloquent predecessors as he marks the peaceful transfer of power on Tuesday with an Inaugural Address, only the 56th in the nation’s history.

Mr. Obama has called Lincoln’s second inaugural speech “intimidating” and John F. Kennedy’s “extraordinary.” (Otherwise, he has said, “Some of the others are not so inspiring.”)

But since his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Obama has shown that he, too, is comfortable in the inaugural idiom. He writes with sweep, clarity and an eye toward history and in a style that Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic consultant, calls a rare combination of the rhetorical and conversational.

Mr. Obama, who rose to prominence on his power as a speechmaker, has discussed his Inaugural Address with a certain detachment. He and his chief speechwriter, Jonathan Favreau, have been trading drafts back and forth for almost two months.

His primary goal, Mr. Obama says, is to define this moment in history.

“I think that the main task for me in an inauguration speech, and I think this is true for my presidency generally, is to try to capture as best I can the moment that we are in,” he told ABC News, adding that he would explain the “crossroads” where the country finds itself.

After that, he said, he wants to “project confidence that if we take the right measures, that we can once again be that country, that beacon for the world.”

Many inaugural speeches follow a somewhat classic formula of laying out the challenges before the nation and calling on basic American ideals to meet them.

But historians have high expectations for Mr. Obama, who, they say, is especially adept at framing the moment and reaching for a larger context.

“That’s one of the secrets of his success, rhetorically,” said Stephen Lucas, a professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin. “He seems very focused on the purpose of the moment.”

His victory speech on election night in Grant Park in Chicago provides a good example: “It’s been a long time coming,” Mr. Obama said, “but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

“Obama loves defining the moment, setting the scene,” said Mr. Shrum, who penned the “dream shall never die” speech for Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1980. “That’s what the great Inaugural Addresses, the ones that last, do.”

Mr. Obama’s primary themes are unity and hope, and they recur frequently, as does a call to service and a reliance on American ideals.

“He goes back to those fundamental themes of American greatness and the fundamental principles, like fairness,” said Shel Leanne, author of “Say It Like Obama,” a primer on his rhetorical technique. “He always tries to create common ground. He immediately starts building a bridge.”

Mr. Obama takes office in the first transition of power since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it will be the first wartime transition in 40 years. Despite the nation’s economic woes, Theodore C. Sorensen, who was John Kennedy’s speechwriter and longtime adviser, said Mr. Obama should keep his focus on the country’s international standing.

“That Inaugural Address is going to define his presidency in the eyes of the rest of the world,” Mr. Sorensen said. It should be “bipartisan in tone and global in reach,” he added, while leaving prescriptions for most domestic matters, like health care, for an address to Congress next month.

“If I were to fault him,” Mr. Sorensen volunteered, “I would say that occasionally his sentences and words are not always short.”

Analysts said Mr. Obama needed to create a sense of urgency, especially about the economy, to bring the public along with him and make Congress feel compelled to work with him.

Some of his tasks are inherently contradictory: give a realistic assessment about the perils facing the country without portraying them as overwhelming; raise hopes and instill confidence without overpromising what he might be able to accomplish; and represent the change he has promised without insulting his predecessor.

“He doesn’t want to create the feeling that he will magically solve all of these pretty difficult problems right away,” said Ted Widmer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and now a historian at Brown. “At the same time he does want to create the feeling that the problems are ultimately solvable.”

In a recent speech at George Mason University that may prefigure the style and substance of the inaugural, Mr. Obama gave a bleak assessment of the economy but found seeds of hope within the American spirit.

“Now, the very fact that this crisis is largely of our own making means that it is not beyond our ability to solve,” he said. “Our problems are rooted in past mistakes, not our capacity for future greatness.”

Mr. Obama also posited the duality of his job with near-inaugural sweep in his speech in Grant Park.

“The road ahead will be long,” he said. “Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there.”

Some analysts say that Mr. Obama’s best speeches are not remembered for specific lines but for their power over his audience.

“Not too many of us can spin out a quick Barack Obama sound bite that we’ve all memorized,” Mr. Widmer said. “But we all do feel mesmerized by his speeches. We do something that’s completely uncharacteristic for Americans — we listen to the entire speech.”

Mr. Obama’s speech in March in Philadelphia on race, for instance, was not instantly quotable, but was memorable for the fact of it and praised by supporters as honest and nuanced; it was one of the most watched political speeches on YouTube.

“We all stopped to listen to him as he explained this extremely complicated, sensitive topic,” Mr. Widmer said. “It was a teaching moment. He’s been unusually good at that. Not all presidents are good teachers, but he has shown great potential for that.”

And on Inauguration Day, many willing students will be listening.

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE

http://www.nytimes.com

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11 Responses to “The Past as a Guide for Obama’s Address”

  1. Anonymous said

    great expectations on the inaugural speech. a very daunting task especially when lincoln and jfk speeches are being used as comparison points don’t you think..

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  2. RJ said

    The only thing Obama needs to do, is set the American people up so that they take control of their government…take their power back from dirty politicians and corruption. Obama is only a tool, he can’t save the world….by himself.

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  3. dorian9 said

    anonymous was me again. oopsie..

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  4. RJ said

    lol. we were posting at the same time.

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  5. dorian9 said

    surely the pessimists will be quick to find fault and criticize instead of helping with the reconstructive efforts. maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised and it will be a true non partisan undertaking. as the saying goes “united we stand, divided we fall”…

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  6. dorian9 said

    where will you be watching the inauguration rj..

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  7. RJ said

    in my bed…and hopefully my eyes will be open…LOL…and you?

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  8. This is going to be a good speech.

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  9. dorian9 said

    in my sofa. with my dogs. i’m full of anticipation. the man is good with the words.

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  10. RJ said

    yes he is. so nice to have a smart president

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  11. tothewire said

    SO EXCITING! I am so excited, poor Joe is just moping around the house everytime I mention it!!!

    Like

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