The gaseous and the gloried

The stage is set outside the U.S. Capitol for Barack Obama to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. (Scott Andrews/AP)

Update: Tuesday's post will appear some time during the afternoon, following the Inauguration ceremonies.

It’s a daunting prospect for any new president to take the oath of office in a time of crisis, and the pressure to deliver an inaugural address worthy of the historic moment is surely great. But it's plausible that Barack Obama will hurdle this bar – not just because he is rhetorically deft, but because the vast majority of his predecessors were not.

Most inaugural addresses have been riddled with gaseous windbaggery, a lot of verbal thickets about destinies and mountaintops, and thus they were instantly forgettable. Can you recite even a single phrase from Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 address? Not a chance. His rhetoric repeatedly crash-landed; at one point, he pleaded with Americans not to view his big-government vision as “the ordered, changeless and sterile battalion of the ants.”

Can you recite anything from Jimmy Carter’s 1977 address? No way. It was quickly flushed from historical memory, I suspect, because so much of it was cringe-worthy. He sounded less like a leader than a lost soul in search of a therapy group: “Your strength can compensate for my weakness, and your wisdom can help to minimize my mistakes. Let us learn together and laugh together…”

How about Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 address? In his case, the writing was just plain bad: “We are not without our problems, but our most important problem is not to secure new advantages, but to maintain those which we already possess.” (He wanted us to continue possessing old problems? Or new advantages to old problems? Or did he intend “advantages” to be a synonym for certain problems that have been solved, and that we should feel good about? Probably the latter. I think.)

In 220 years, only four inaugural speeches – actually, only fragmentary excerpts from those four speeches - have been lodged in the national consciousness as glory-worthy: Lincoln’s second address, in 1865; FDR’s first, in 1933; JFK’s address in 1961 (by itself, the gold standard); and Reagan’s first, in 1981. Obama would excel tomorrow if he borrows key elements from this quartet.

From Lincoln, he can adopt the theme of magnanimity (and, perhaps, brevity). In only 701 words, Lincoln urged an end to the polarization between blue and gray. He said it was time for everyone to set aside the urge to settle old scores and bind up the nation’s wounds “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” Obama has already signaled an abiding interest in moving beyond the contemporary polarization between blue and red.

Like Roosevelt, he can talk straight with the citizenry about the economic crisis (FDR: “Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment”). Obama can also emulate FDR by seeking to calm the public’s jitters, and reboot the ingrained American sense of confidence. (FDR: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts.”)

From Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country…ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man”), Obama can adopt the intertwined themes of sacrifice, civic obligation, and public service. In the weeks and months after 9/11, during that rare bipartisan moment, Americans were basically told to go shopping; virtually nothing else was asked of us. Obama can be expected to refashion the spirit of JFK for the 21st century, and signal that we should all be prepared to sacrifice more for the common good.

And like Reagan, he can use the occasion to spell out his basic governing philosophy – and thereby signal his desired direction for the Democratic party. When Reagan took the oath for the first time in ’81, he articulated his fundamental ethos by declaring that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem…It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the federal establishment.” Obama’s ideals are obviously different (and, by the way, the federal establishment actually got bigger on Reagan’s watch). The point here is that Reagan provided a philosophical framework for his decision-making; Obama might benefit from defining his own.

Obama can also be expected to plead for patience, to lower the soaring expectations and remind his followers that no miracles are in the offing. Politically, that’s the smart move, and he doesn’t need guidance on that from any of his predecessors. On the other hand, Kennedy did hit the theme in 1961, when he laid out his agenda and cautioned that “this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration…” Reagan did much the same 20 years later, when he listed his goals for taming inflation and joblessness, yet cautioned: “Progress may be slow—measured in inches and feet, not miles…” (And George H. W. Bush warned Americans, in the forgettable address of 1989, not to expect great domestic achievements during his tenure: “Our funds are low…we have more will than wallet.”)

But Obama will stand at the podium tomorrow with two assets untrumped by any predecessor (at least during the polling era). He will obviously request that Americans support his new presidency, yet he already has their support. According to the latest New York Times-CBS poll, released this weekend, 79 percent of Americans feel optimistic about Obama (including 58 percent of those who voted for John McCain) – a record high among the incoming presidents. Obama will also use the speech to plead for patience, yet people are already prepared to be patient. In the Times-CBS poll, 68 percent of Americans said they expect the recession to last two years or longer.

So he has the nation’s indulgence. Now we’ll see how well he frames the historic moment. My guess is that, by the time he finishes tomorrow, we will not be pining for Warren G. Harding, who no doubt quickened pulses in 1921 when he declared that “our supreme task is the resumption of our onward normal way.” This time, something a tad more monumental is obviously required.