The Barack Obama Inaugural Could Join Those of FDR, JFK, and Reagan Among Greats

Man, message, and moment appear to be aligning.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I've been writing, thinking, and speaking (in connection with the recently released paperback edition of White House Ghosts) a lot recently about great inaugural addresses and what they have in common. And I suspect—beyond the obvious reasons—that the stars may be lining up Tuesday for a historic address.

The most memorable inaugural addresses—and I am specifically thinking of FDR's first, JFK's, and Reagan's first—have three things in common: They are a meeting of man, message, and moment.

Man: FDR, JFK, and Reagan were each extraordinary speech-givers in their own right. Just as important, they all understood the importance of the "bully pulpit" and were deeply engaged in the crafting of not only their inaugurals but their speeches generally. Obama fits the bill on both counts.

Message: Aside from being well written, the speeches closely reflected the presidents (FDR's confident optimism, JFK's elegant youth, Reagan's pro-American, antigovernment message), giving them the power of authenticity. Moreover, they all reflected a sharp break from a recent past: FDR from the hapless Herbert Hoover and, more broadly, from his laissez-faire politics; JFK not only representing a new generation taking its place in leadership but also stirring the country from the sleepy complacence of the Eisenhower '50s; Reagan breaking from the Carter malaise and, more broadly, from the big-government politics of the New Deal.

Moment: A well-constructed, movingly delivered speech will be quickly forgotten if it does not resonate with the broader moment in which it is given. Context is critical, and the multiple problems facing the nation present Barack Obama with a perverse opportunity: The nation is primed for the kind of message the man is likely to deliver next week—tempered confidence in the country and a sharp break not simply from the policies of the Bush years but the hyperpartisanship that has colored the last couple of decades.

Man, moment, and message appear to be aligning.

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