Obama Trades Soaring Oratory For Tough Talk

This article is more than 12 years old.

By Liz Halloran (NPR)

President Barack Hussein Obama, the nation's first African-American head of state, on Tuesday proclaimed himself humbled by the challenges he and the country face, and issued to citizens a call to reject the fear of decline and work to reaffirm the greatness of the union.

For a politician known for soaring rhetoric and the ability to transfix his audiences, Obama largely put content, not prose, in the starring role. And he characteristically made only brief mention of the history he embodied on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Much like FDR, who, taking office in 1933, at the nadir of the Great Depression, urged Americans to take comfort in national unity as they faced "arduous days ahead," Obama in plain, strong language, also referred to tough times and hard work. "We understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned," the new president said, calling for a "new era of responsibility."

Robert Schlesinger, author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, said that Obama's theme of basic, long-standing American values "is one we've heard from people as ideologically divergent as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan." But the new president's clarion call to the nation to look within to fix its problems, Schlesinger says, has echoes from Obama's days as a community organizer in Chicago.

Though the 47-year-old son of a black Kenyan father and white mother from Kansas reached out to the larger world, including those in Muslim countries, his comments were tempered with a stern commander-in-chief warning.

America, he said, "will not apologize for our way of life" nor hesitate to defend it.

A Break From The Bush Era

The 44th president, who looked out on a massive, diverse crowd that had begun gathering long before the purple light of pre-dawn, also took vigorous account of the failures of the recent past. He decried the "greed and irresponsibility" that weakened the nation's economy and the "collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

And he took a strikingly direct aim at Bush-era policies by flatly rejecting what he characterized as the "false choice between our safety and our ideals," and pledging to restore science "to its rightful place."

Though the nation is still young, Obama said pointedly, the time has come for the nation to set aside "childish things."

It was a strong repudiation of Bush policies and represented a clear break with the just-departed administration.

"The fact of the break is not surprising — he ran on a campaign of change," said historian Russell Riley of the University of Virginia. "But it was striking that, with his predecessor seated behind him, there were so many moments in the address where he is directly critical of what went before."

A Pragmatic Address

The speech was laced with the concepts of challenge, the power of work and the essentialness of fair play. But for an orator who counts Abraham Lincoln as his hero, there was little evidence of the Great Emancipator in the address.


Historian James Cornelius, curator at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill., said that overall, Obama sounded much more like a commander-in-chief than Lincoln did during his first address, when he was valiantly attempting to preserve the Union.

And Fred Shapiro, a Yale University Law School librarian who edits the Yale Book of Quotations, said he found the speech "fairly eloquent," though without references to inaugural addresses past.

"In style, Obama surprisingly does not echo Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Dr. Martin Luther King, as I would have expected," Shapiro said. "Instead he finds his own voice, confident and pragmatic, only at a few points soaring rhetorically."

It clearly was a conscious decision, even amid the high expectations for an oratorical event.

A Long Way From Boston

The inaugural address now joins Obama's pantheon of seminal speeches: from 2002, when, as a state legislator, he denounced military intervention in Iraq, to his groundbreaking speech about race in 2008 and his election victory speech just over two months ago, when he described himself as "never the likeliest candidate for this office."

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy," he said, "tonight is your answer."

Just over 41/2 years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the country first got a powerful glimpse of the young, black-skinned man from Illinois who talked about race and responsibility in a way that engaged even those who counted themselves among his political opposites.

It sounded new — different than the rhetoric that grew out of the 1960s' civil rights movement. A message that stressed shared rather than unique experiences. "E plurbis unum," he said. "Out of many, one."

And it was in that speech that Obama introduced America to the themes that would carry him to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, his hand on a Bible. The pundits, he said, like to slice and dice the country into "red states and blue states."

"But I've got news for them," Obama said then. "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states."

"There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq," he said. "We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and the stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Rugged Path Ahead

The broad flourishes were lacking in Tuesday's address; instead, Americans saw a leader assuming the helm of a nation in crisis — at war and deep into a painful recession — who expects much of himself and them.

America's path to greatness "has not been for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame," he said.

"Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom."

And along that rugged path, he said, "our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

Today Obama, who did marvel at the fact that he's the son of a man who 60 years ago "might not have been served at a local restaurant," left the poetry to inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander. Instead, he turned to the country and said, simply, let us begin the work together.

Or, as FDR said in his 1933 address: "I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first."

This program aired on January 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.