Presidential inaugurations are quadrennial moments of renewal. No matter how bitter and angry a campaign has been, Americans tend to stand back, focus on the good qualities of their newly elected leader, and give him a break for at least a while. That's why most new presidents get a honeymoon, however brief, from their critics, and why the first months of a new administration tend to be among the most productive.
What Americans want in an inaugural address is a sense of vision and reaffirmation of what's best in their country. Actually, the most memorable of such speeches also capture and encourage the zeitgeist of their times. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln called on Americans to preserve their Union and heed "the better angels of our nature." In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt inspired courage amid the Depression when he said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." In 1961, John F. Kennedy called for passing the torch to a "new generation." In 1981, with the long-running Iran-hostage crisis and growing economic woes, Ronald Reagan gave a dispirited nation new hope when he declared, "We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal."
Great expectations. Striking this balance between vision and effort, between hope and sacrifice, will be especially important when Barack Obama stands on the Capitol's West Front on January 20 and takes the oath of office as the 44th president—and the first African-American to hold that office. "The inaugural address has got to soar," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Reagan. "What America needs right now is inspiration. This is not about beginning a new chapter. This is about opening a new book."
In recent weeks, Obama has been concentrating on the often tedious details of governing as he chose his cabinet, rounded out his White House staff, and met with advisers on the economy, national security, and other issues. In the process, he has been acting more like a corporate manager than a transcendent leader. Obama has been holding back on his public rhetoric so as not to appear too glitzy and insubstantial, which were common charges against him during the campaign.
Besides, says a prominent Democrat close to Obama's transition team, "He doesn't have any authority to govern yet. George Bush is still the president, and Obama is working very hard to go about all this in the right way. But he'll be as inspirational as all get-out in his inaugural address. Charisma is as charisma does, and this is not the time for it. But on January 20, it will be the time."
Obama, friends say, has been quietly focusing on what he will say, and how he can best inspire what will probably be a record-breaking crowd of 2 million people on the National Mall and the wider television audience here and abroad. Members of his team say he will return to the motivational persona that became so well known during his campaign and that Americans seem to be craving as they contemplate the nation's growing problems, ranging from the economic meltdown to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing challenge of battling terrorism.
He is looking at his inauguration, in fact, not as a single speech but as a series of events full of symbols and historic resonance. He will give special emphasis to the memory of Lincoln, a fellow Illinois politician and hero of many African- Americans, who also governed in very challenging times. Obama plans to arrive in Washington the same way Lincoln did in 1861, by train, with major speeches along the way, including addresses in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Advisers say he is reading Lincoln's words and seems sure to include direct references to him at his own inauguration. Obama has already borrowed from Lincoln's first inaugural address, on election night, when he said, "We are not enemies, but friends... Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."
And while charisma is not essential to a president's success—leaders ranging from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson showed that one can get a lot done without a special ability to reach the masses—it can be enormously helpful in marshaling support for a president's agenda. Most observers expect Obama to focus, first and foremost, on the troubled economy, and seek support for the massive "rescue" package he is now developing with congressional leaders. "He needs to give a sober message and call for sacrifice because there will be tough times ahead," says a senior Democratic strategist. "But he will also need to send a message of hope."
If done right, Obama's inaugural address could set the tone for his entire administration, following in the pattern of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan.
- Read about the history of inaugurations.
- Take a quiz on inaugural trivia.
- Read a Visitor's Guide to Obama's Inauguration .
- Read more about the Obama Administration transition .
- Read more of The Presidency columns by Kenneth T. Walsh .