Four years ago today, a million people streamed onto the national mall for one of the most anticipated speeches of the new century: Barack Obama’s inaugural address. A man hailed for his oratorical skills and renowned for his literary flair was taking office at a moment of national crisis. The recipe called for a grand statement on par with Franklin Roosevelt’s “all we have to fear is fear itself,” from his 1933 oath-taking.
FDR was just one of the antecedents on the minds of the crowd; the ceremony was dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, whose achievement in freeing the slaves was being brought to dazzling fruition with the inauguration of an African-American president. The president-elect arrived in Washington by train, following the route taken by Lincoln.
Would Obama’s address be worthy of FDR and Lincoln? The idea was presumptuous, but not out of proportion to the expectations of the crowd. Book publishers were waiting for the text of Obama’s remarks to start the presses on their commemorative editions. History was in the air.
In the end, Obama’s speech didn’t quite live up to the moment. It wasn’t bad, and may even have cracked the top 10 of presidential inaugural addresses, a list that’s headed by Lincoln’s brilliant Second Inaugural Address (“with malice toward none”), John F. Kennedy’s stirring 1961 speech (“ask not. . .”), and Roosevelt’s Depression-era rallying cry, and then drops off precipitously.
Obama’s speech was wise, but diffuse. It spoke of the “gathering clouds and raging storms” of the financial crisis, but also paid tribute to “our patchwork heritage” and gave a special nod to the Muslim world. Its most relevant passage, in gearing up for the tasks at hand, came when Obama declared, “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our systems cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”
But this line didn’t fully translate. When presidents use the word “our” — our fate, our ambitions — they should be referring to the whole nation. Obama used it to reference his own proposals, and answer those who considered them unrealistic; it served to introduce doubts as much as dispel them. By contrast, FDR set the stage for legislative action far more crisply and confidently, by declaring that the people “have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.”
The lack of excitement generated by Obama’s inaugural address was offset, to a great extent, by the inauguration itself. The frothing anticipation of the crowd gave way to boundless enthusiasm; if the revelers could have picked Obama off the ground and carried him to the White House, they would have done so.
But after the reviewing stand was dismantled and the flags furled, some sense of disappointment lingered, and soon grew stronger as Obama’s supporters realized that his presidency wasn’t going to soar on a cloud of rhetoric, but rather slog purposefully ahead, often pushing against a recalcitrant Congress.
The notion of Obama as a rhetorical star, a new Lincoln or FDR, receded. But the 2012 presidential campaign turned out to be far more transformative than anyone imagined. Seeking reelection in a time of ongoing distress, Obama reached back to his first principles — and did so far more directly and articulately than in 2008.
In preceding elections, the Republicans had run values-oriented campaigns, while Democrats stuck to the facts and figures. In 2012, the pattern was reversed: Mitt Romney pointed to economic statistics, while Obama expounded on the principle of greater equality, whether in the tax code, voting rolls, or doctor’s office.
The second half of Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention, with its paean to citizenship, “a word at the very heart of our founding,” sounded the proper note of elevation. But that only set the stage for what came on the night of his victory. It was an odd moment for a thoughtful address — after midnight on the East Coast, before an ebullient crowd more in the mood to make noise than to listen.
But what followed was his greatest speech as president, broader than his eulogy-like rallying speeches after the tragedies in Tucson and Newtown, more poetic than his State of the Union addresses. It explained that while campaigns can feel petty, the stakes are not, and that the fierceness of the disagreements reflects the level of passion on both sides — feelings that nonetheless should be channeled into collaborative action. Voters, who may assume their work is done, can’t just check out, either.
“This country has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich,” Obama declared. “We have the most powerful military in history, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities, our culture are all the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores. What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth, the belief that our destiny is shared, that this country works only when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for comes with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism.”
That speech set the stage for Obama’s second term — and raised the stakes for his second inaugural address. Will Obama be able to distill those sentiments into a governing principle, a “fear itself” or “house divided” or “pay any price” type of statement? It’s not a small question: His ability to express himself on the podium will indicate whether he’ll be able to transcend his battles with Congress and really make his case to the people. On the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Obama won the message war with a better-articulated plan than the Republicans. He’s already drawn a clear line on the debt-ceiling fight. Words may yet become his best weapon, making him more like the president that those million celebrants were anticipating back in 2009.
Peter S. Canellos is editor of the Globe’s editorial page.