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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama's inaugural speech to be most watched in history

(01-18) 20:34 PST --

It will probably be the most widely watched address ever delivered, one that will draw millions of Americans and billions around the globe together - to savor the moment and the message of one man at one memorable turning point in American history.

And that makes the inaugural address of Barack Obama, to be delivered Tuesday, more than merely a ceremonial occasion of state. It represents the biggest challenge yet for a political leader whose eloquence has been essential in his unlikely rise to become leader of the free world.

The test: to not only master the present, but to meet the standards of those who have stood before him in the same place, to deliver a soaring sermon for the ages and at the same time to address the precise set of daunting circumstances now facing the nation.

"He's going to have to hit the rhetorical sweet spot between high-flying, speaking-to-history rhetoric and specific policy notions designed to address the day's crises," wrote Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News & World Report.

In an interview aired Sunday on ABC's "This Week," David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, said the speech would be consistent with the themes that Obama has emphasized throughout the campaign.

"I don't think you're going to be surprised by what you hear," he said. "I think he's going to talk about where we are as a country but also who we are as a people and what responsibilities accrue to us as a result of that, and what we have to do to move forward."

Presidents who delivered memorable inaugural speeches all crafted messages that resonated with the particular challenges of their political era.

John F. Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you" was a clarion call to a younger generation regarding service to country. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" was an assurance that Americans could - and would - emerge from the economic depths of the Depression. Thomas Jefferson's "we are all Republicans; we are all Federalists" was his appeal to end political rivalry. Even Bill Clinton strengthened a country emerging from a harsh recession when he declared, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."

Six to 20 words

Obama's inaugural address comes at "a moment of extreme crisis for the country, with a virtual depression and two wars," said Democratic strategist and speechwriter Phil Trounstine. "He's taking charge of the ship of state in the middle of the perfect storm.

"So his task is to demonstrate great command and inspire great confidence and give people hope," Trounstine said. "And that's no easy challenge."

History shows that "what's remembered from great inaugural speeches is one or two lines, six to 20 words really," Trounstine said. The "tone and atmospherics are important, and you come at it with the idea ... of crafting words that give voice to what is a staggering historical moment."

University of Southern California communications Professor Thomas Hollihan agrees that while the traditional address is epideictic - or ceremonial - it "comes with a lot of attached expectations."

"An inaugural speech is very different from the annual State of the Union address," he said. "By its very nature, it's a speech that celebrates the continuity of the compact between people and the democratic process."

But it marks another departure, too, said Professor James Taylor, who teaches African American history and politics at the University of San Francisco.

"This is likely, with the exception of a re-election campaign, the last rhetorical speech the American public will hear from Barack Obama," Taylor said.

Last chance to inspire

"From here on out, it's specific policy positions and crises he faces, Israel and Palestine, the economy and the housing issues," he said. "We can expect to feel really good on Jan. 20, but ... that may be the end of the inspirational Barack Obama. (Now), what we will see unfold is much more deliberate Barack Obama," no longer a candidate or a political figure, but the president of the United States.

And though it will last just minutes, Obama's address must also meet a multitude of objectives, experts say.

"Because of the dire straits the country is in, his job is really to lift people up," said communications and speech expert Ruth Sherman. "I don't think the American people are the only people looking for that. The whole world is expecting that."

She said Obama, whose political mantra has been "change," must begin to "clarify what the changes are that he's going to make. ... This is his chance for inspiration, a call to action, asking for help, and demonstrating his humility."

Morley Winograd, a fellow at NDN, a Democratic advocacy group, and co-author of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, & the Future of American Politics," said that the speech will probably include at least one reference to a theme that Americans on both sides of the aisle will welcome: "rebuilding America's civic spirit."

"The way to solve that is through a unified effort, a perfect millennial theme, the 'Joshua generation' - that we hold hands and blow down the walls together," he said. "I don't think it will have a single digit of partisan tinge. ... It will be 'everybody is in this together.' "

But, said USF's Taylor, "I suspect Barack Obama really needs to speak to the lack of confidence that Americans have had in the government, especially with regard to the war and the economic collapse.

"He can combine an inspirational speech, something that aims high and is full of the American destiny, to talk about navigating this new century, this new era," Taylor said.

The promised land

Obama must also mark another new era, as the first African American president, which for many Americans may mean Obama's inaugural speech will be viewed as a kind of passing of the torch from slain civil right leader Martin Luther King Jr., an orator whose speeches still resonate deeply in the American consciousness.

"King said the night before he died ... that we will 'get to the promised land,' " Taylor said. "Obama reaches across 40 years of history that promises that we, as a people, will get there. King put down the mantle in '68, and Obama has picked it up in 2008, 40 years later."

Even one of Obama's daughters made reference to the symbolism, the president-elect told CNN.

When the family visited the Lincoln Memorial last week, Obama told CNN's John King that his daughter Malia noted Lincoln's inaugural address engraved on the wall.

"Do you have to give one of these?" she asked her father.

When he said yes, Obama recalled, "she turns to me and says, 'First African American president. Better be good.' "

Obama's Address

Thomas Hollihan, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, offers tips on what to expect in the Obama inaugural address, scheduled for approximately 9 a.m. PST Tuesday:


-- Abraham Lincoln - overcoming racial and civic divisions, wartime challenges

-- John F. Kennedy - a new era with a young, vibrant leader

-- Franklin D. Roosevelt - using the power of the state to confront a depression, wartime challenges

-- Martin Luther King Jr. - societal change, overcoming racial and civic divisions

-- George W. Bush - acknowledging the service of the outgoing president as power is



-- Specific policy proposals

-- Joe the Plumber shout-outs

-- Introductory jokes

The test of time


-- "With malice toward none, with charity for all." - Abraham Lincoln, 1865

-- "We wish peace, but we wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness. We wish it because we think it is right and not because we are afraid. No weak nation that acts manfully and justly should ever have cause to fear us, and no strong power should ever be able to single us out as a subject for insolent aggression." - Theodore Roosevelt, 1905

-- "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

-- "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy, 1961

-- "It is time for us to realize that we're too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline." - Ronald Reagan, 1981

-- "Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America." - Bill Clinton, 1993


-- "The election has again confirmed the determination of the American people that regulation of private enterprise and not government ownership or operation is the course rightly to be pursued in our relation to business." - Herbert Hoover, 1929

-- "In trusting too much in government, we have asked of it more than it can deliver. This leads only to inflated expectations, to reduced individual effort, and to a disappointment and frustration that erode confidence both in what government can do and in what people can do." - Richard Nixon, 1973

-- "We will reduce taxes, to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans. We will build our defenses beyond challenge, lest weakness invite challenge. We will confront weapons of mass destruction, so that a new century is spared new horrors." - George W. Bush, 2001

E-mail Carla Marinucci at