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From era-defining to agenda-setting -- not all inaugural speeches created equal

All inaugural addresses are not created equal, but through the course of the nation’s history, presidents have used the occasion to sketch their visions on topics as old as the republic itself – unity, sacrifice and the proper role of government.

By the time Barack Obama delivered his first inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2009, he had already become famous as an orator with his smashing debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his Iowa caucus victory speech in January 2008.

“There is not a liberal America and conservative America – there is the United States of America,” he declared in the 2004 speech.

A star was born that night and his exhilarating speech on the night he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 proved to his fans that his rhetorical skill could carry him to the presidency.

He claimed victory in Iowa over those who "said this country was too divided, too disillusioned, to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do.”

By the time Obama stood up to take his oath of office at the Capitol, the improbable had become reality. The “cynics” had long since been vanquished.

Like other presidents in their inaugural addresses, Obama in 2009 faced the familiar tasks of sounding a call for national renewal and proclaiming a faith in ordinary Americans.

As Bill Clinton had said in his first inaugural in 1993, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” Many inaugural speeches – from Thomas Jefferson’s in 1801 to Ronald Reagan’s in 1981 to Obama’s in 2009 -- are elaborations of the upbeat theme that Clinton sounded in 1993.

Since an inauguration – especially a first one – is a fresh start, the newly sworn-in president naturally will proclaim that voters have brought about long-overdue change. “You have changed the face of Congress, the presidency and the political process itself.” That wasn’t Obama speaking in 2009; it was Bill Clinton in his 1993 inaugural address.

Moral improvement

Obama’s first inaugural seems at certain points remarkably personal. In it he did not mention his mother, whom he had often evoked in his 2008 campaign speeches, but he did twice mention his father – whom he never saw after he was 10 years old.

His own life story and the nation’s history were uniquely intertwined, Obama implied, alluding at one point to all the people around the globe watching him taking the oath, including the people in “the small village where my father was born” in Kenya.

He said America’s ability to reform itself was “why 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.”

Obama offered a strikingly optimistic view of every nation’s ability to become more like America at its best: capable of moral improvement, tolerant, and committed to unifying and noble ideals, without regard to a person’s ethnicity or skin color.

“Because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself,” he said.

His defeat of John McCain in the November election and of Hillary Clinton and other rivals in the Democratic primaries was a victory of ideals: “We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

Like Clinton in 1993, Obama said that voters had changed the American political system itself: “On this day, 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.”

As for just one of the specific promises Obama made in that speech: “We will wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost.”

He did sign into law a landmark health care overhaul but whether its provisions will lower the cost of medical care has yet to be determined.

Role of government

Obama used his inaugural to join the long-running debate with small government conservatives – a debate that Clinton had joined in his second inaugural address in 1997.

Reagan had said in 1981, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

In his 1997 inaugural, Clinton rebutted Reagan, or at least tried to redefine the debate: “We have resolved for our time a great debate over the role of government. Today we can declare: government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We – the American people – we are the solution.”

Obama, once again assailing unnamed “cynics” as he did in his Iowa speech, said in his inaugural address that his election allowed Americans to move beyond old arguments about the size of the federal government.

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them; that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply,” he declared. “The question we ask today is not whether our Government is too big or too small, but whether it works; whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.”

So far, that last promise has not yet been kept: Obama has significantly expanded the federal role in health care but hasn’t yet ended any major federal program.

What makes an inaugural speech one for the history books is a president’s eloquence at a moment of national crisis. Very few inaugural addresses are, like Lincoln’s immortal and remarkably short (701 words) second inaugural, carved in their entirety in granite on the National Mall or anywhere else, but on some rare occasions a president’s words do seem to define an era.

Franklin Roosevelt did that in 1933, at the depth of the gravest economic crisis of modern times, attacking what he called “the unscrupulous money changers” whose practices “stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.”

He said, “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

That scalding attack on Wall Street is less well remembered today than FDR’s serene confidence in a dark hour: “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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