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Fri Jan 18, 2013, 11:08 AM

Can Obama Speak to History?


January 17, 2013
Can Obama Speak to History?
Posted by George Packer

Why are so few inaugural addresses memorable? This American-history junkie can immediately call to mind phrases from fewer than ten: Jefferson’s first (“We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists”); Lincoln’s first (“When again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature”) and second (the entire speech glows transcendently); F.D.R.’s first (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) and second (“I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished”); Kennedy’s (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”); and Reagan’s first (“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”). I also remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural (“When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you”), only because it made promises and claims that exploded in his face before he had left the podium.

I also remember five words from Obama’s first: “A new era of responsibility.” If his 2009 inaugural had a theme, that was it. And it was a good theme, coming at the depths of the recession, amid the ruins of an era of profligacy and “I want it now.” But I doubt that its signature phrase will enter the ages. Obama isn’t a phrasemaker. I have the sense that he disdains the glibness of sound bites, for very good reason but also out of an incorrigible and self-undermining need to rise above politics. (What else but a sound bite was “with malice toward none, with charity for all”?) If Obama is the best writer-President since Lincoln, it’s not because of an extraordinary gift for language—it’s because of his breadth of experience and depth of thought.


Great political speechmaking depends on turns of phrase joined to profound ideas that answer the pressures of a historical moment. “Nothing to fear but fear itself” is rhetorically pleasing because of syntax and repetition, it’s a penetrating insight into the psychology of the Depression, and it optimistically summoned Americans to overcome their fears at the country’s darkest moment. By contrast, Obama’s second inaugural comes at an inauspicious moment for political rhetoric. A weak recovery, continued gridlock, a bunch of issues (debt, spending, health care, immigration, guns, climate, the Middle East) competing for attention—it’s a much less dramatic time than 2009, let alone 1933. Americans are no longer looking to the President for salvation or survival. The historical record suggests that next week’s speech will be a bit of a snooze.

I hope Obama surprises us. I hope he throws out the kind of boilerplate that made last year’s convention speech one of the weaker ones in Charlotte. I hope that Obama the writer finds some vivid prose for the occasion; that Obama the thinker treats us like his intellectual equals, as he did in Philadelphia and Oslo; and that Obama the man allows himself the risk of deep feeling, as he did in Tucson and Newtown. Most of all, I hope Obama the politician is willing to say things that some people might not want to hear.

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babylonsister Jan 2013 OP
JReed Jan 2013 #1

Response to babylonsister (Original post)

Fri Jan 18, 2013, 11:20 AM

1. Will we hear something like this?


“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society...a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Or this?

In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."


On such a historic day?

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