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Obama Ushers a New Era…

January 21, 2009

  • Sober Obama speech draws on surprising sources

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  • Story Highlights
  • Only whispers of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. heard in speech
  • American patriot Thomas Paine seems to have been an influence
  • Other noted references: President Kennedy, Shakespeare and Abraham from Bible

By Richard Allen Greene
CNN

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Barack Obama, who shot from obscurity to fame based on a single speech and then captured the White House in a campaign marked by soaring rhetoric, delivered a restrained, sober inaugural address Tuesday.

American patriot Thomas Paine seems to have informed some of the spirit of President Obama's inaugural speech.

American patriot Thomas Paine seems to have informed some of the spirit of President Obama’s inaugural speech.

Gone was the mantra-like “Yes we can” chanted by supporters, which Obama invoked as a refrain right through his victory speech on Election Night.

Largely absent, too, were citations from the two historical figures on whose shoulders Obama stood Tuesday — Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom he quoted on the night of his triumph in November.

He took his oath of office on Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural Bible, closing a circle of symbolism that began when he declared his candidacy for president two years ago on the same spot in Illinois where Lincoln launched his own first campaign.

But other than mentioning “the lash of the whip,” an echo of Lincoln’s towering second inaugural address, and “gathering clouds and raging storms,” Obama did not seem to quote the 16th president.

And, perhaps thinking that the simple fact of an African-American being sworn in as president was sufficiently drenched with significance, he made only the most glancing reference to King. “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers,” Obama said, a contemporary variation on King’s hope that “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” would one day join hands and sing.

In fact, if the speech could be said to have an animating spirit, it was that of Thomas Paine, the great 18th-century pamphleteer who played a key role in the American and French revolutions.

Obama referred to “the rights of man,” the title of a book Paine wrote in praise of the French Revolution.

And his speech ended with a long quote from Paine that George Washington ordered read to his troops when the revolt looked bleak for the Colonies: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it.)”

The passage comes from Paine’s critical 1776 essay “The Crisis,” which famously begins:  “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Indeed, Obama used the word “crisis” four times in his speech — one more time than he used the word perhaps most closely identified with him: Hope.

“That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well-understood,” Obama said, in a speech that warned Americans to prepare for a long, hard — but certain — slog toward better days.

He drew on the touchstones of American civic life, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, with phrases such as “we the people,” “common defense” and “all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

He nodded towards John F. Kennedy with a reference to “rising tides of prosperity” and Franklin Roosevelt in saying Americans had chosen “hope over fear.” And he seemed to carry on a bit of an argument with Ronald Reagan, listing key battlefields in American history (“Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn”), as Reagan did in his first inaugural, but rejecting the most famous phrase from that speech.

“Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem,” Reagan declared in 1981.

No, Obama seemed to respond 28 years later, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works. … Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end … because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

He also borrowed a notion associated with Reagan, but running through American history right back to the Puritans, who in turn took it from the book of Isaiah: that American ideals “still light the world.”

And his conclusion bookended the two great sources of quotes in the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible.

America, he said, may be experiencing “this winter of our hardship” — riffing on Richard III’s “winter of our discontent” — but will prove “when we were tested” — as Abraham was by God — “we refused to let this journey end … with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Schneider: Tone of Obama speech right for the times

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst

WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Obama’s inaugural address was cooler, more measured and reassuring than that of other presidents making it, perhaps, the right speech for the times.

President Obama renewed his call for a massive plan to stimulate economic growth.

President Obama renewed his call for a massive plan to stimulate economic growth.

Some inaugural addresses are known for their soaring, inspirational language. Like John F. Kennedy’s in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Obama’s address was less stirring, perhaps, but it was also more candid and down-to-earth.

“Starting today,” the new president said, “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin the work of remaking America.”

At a time of crisis, a president needs to be reassuring. Like Franklin Roosevelt, who said in his first inaugural in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Or Bill Clinton, who took office during the economic crisis of the early 1990s. “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America,” Clinton declared at his first inaugural.

Obama, too, offered reassurance.

“We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” Obama said.

Obama’s call to unity after decades of political division echoed Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861. Even though he delivered it at the onset of a terrible civil war, Lincoln’s speech was not a call to battle. It was a call to look beyond the war, toward reconciliation based on what he called “the better angels of our nature.”

Some presidents used their inaugural address to set out a bold agenda.

  • At his first inaugural in 1981, Ronald Reagan said, “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” George W. Bush defined the essence of the neoconservative agenda when he said at his 2005 inaugural, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

President Obama did talk about having “big plans.” But he insisted they be practical.

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small,” Obama said, “but whether it works.”

Obama certainly knows how to be stirring. And he was at least once in his inaugural address when he talked about his new approach to diplomacy.

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history,” Obama declared, “but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Are you listening, Iran?

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Obama’s was a cool speech, not a hot speech. That’s what a lot of people like about the new president. He’s reassuring — “No-Drama Obama.”

At a time of mounting national anxiety, cool is good.

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