'I, Barack Hussein Obama.'

By Thomas, Evan | Newsweek, January 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

'I, Barack Hussein Obama.'


Thomas, Evan, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas

These are gloomy times for a second inaugural. Can the president both reassure and inspire a worried public?

The last Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009, dawned bright and cold. More than a million people, possibly the largest live audience ever to see a president inaugurated, and certainly

the biggest since Lyndon Johnson's inauguration in 1965, streamed to the Washington Mall for Barack Obama's oath-taking as the 44th president of the United States. Even the most jaded old Washington hands could feel a different vibe in the crowd--people seemed excited, happy, some teary-eyed to witness, for the first time in history, an African-American sworn in as chief executive.

Obama's inaugural address was widely seen as a bit of a letdown. "A hodgepodge," wrote John Judis in The New Republic. There were no particularly memorable phrases or flights of rhetoric. At one point, Obama seemed to play the scold, quoting Scripture that "the time has come to put aside childish things." Some observers speculated that Obama had intentionally wished to lower expectations raised by his dreams of "hope and change" during the campaign.

Not exactly, says Adam Frankel, a former Obama White House speechwriter who worked on the address. "It's not like we considered writing a soaring speech and decided not to. But there was also a recognition, a new sense of responsibility to talk to people 'where they are,' as [Obama adviser] David Axelrod put it-- to give them a sense of hope without being Pollyanna-ish," Frankel told me.

Frankel recalled that before the president's first inauguration, during a meeting at the Obama campaign's Chicago headquarters, the president-elect had told his staff he wanted an address that would place the moment in history. Frankel found one model, as recounted by historian David McCullough, in the words Gen. George Washington, after crossing the Delaware in December 1776, had used to inspire and rally his frozen and demoralized troops. And Obama tried to invoke that spirit, urging Americans to rise above "petty grievances and false promises," and culminating with a rousing finale nodding to Thomas Paine: "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come."

Four years ago, standing in the chilly air, the vast outdoor audience assembled before the west front of the Capitol may have been momentarily moved. Yet in his first term, the president himself did not, perhaps could not, live up to his own words. Those who know him say he was burdened--and hardened--by the constant political infighting in Washington.

Now Obama has a second chance at an inaugural. The task is perhaps more daunting, to find a way to inspire and uplift, but also to speak to people "where they are"--distrustful of government, worried about their future, unsure their president will have any more luck fixing Washington's dysfunctional culture in his second term than he did in his first. Obama risks sounding like a phony if he tries too hard for words meant to be cut in marble. On the other hand, he can't show how tired and frustrated he must really feel.

A president who is writing (or, more likely, editing and refining) his inaugural address is confronted with a very difficult challenge: how to speak in his own true voice while at the same time speaking for every man and woman. The challenge to be at once unique and universal has defeated virtually all of Obama's predecessors. With a few memorable exceptions--like JFK's, Lincoln's second, FDR's first ("the only thing to fear is fear itself")--inaugural addresses have long disappointed their expectant listeners. The words rarely live up to the occasion. Most inaugural addresses "tend not to be very good," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "The best rhetoric has been used up in the campaign, and presidents don't want to promise too much. They are planning to give their first State of the Union addresses in a few weeks and they don't want to preempt. …

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