The Straightaway

Politics Without Pundits

ANALYSIS: President Obama’s Inaugural Address

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It is only natural that President Barack Obama would deliver an inaugural address so similar to that of the man he is often compared to – the late President John F. Kennedy. (Two of Kennedy’s former speechwriters helped Obama craft his address).

Firstly, and most importantly, the world in 2008, as it did in 1961, finds itself torn in a struggle between two dominant ideologies that threatens to tear apart the very fibers that bind humanity together. In 1961, the great battle being waged was the one between two economic systems – Capitalism and Communism. In 2008, the battle at hand is a struggle between two sets of values – Western vs. Islam.

In his inaugural, Kennedy reached out to the other side, offering “To those nations who would make themselves our adversary…not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.” Obama does roughly the same, with some pre-condition: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

Obama addresses the poor people of the world, as Kennedy did, saying that Americans “can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders…the world has changed, and we must change with it.” Perhaps the Obama Administration’s seeming embrace of diplomacy and foreign aid will help fulfill Kennedy’s promise: “to those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required.”

Both Presidents acknowledged the major part America would play in future generations. While Obama offers nothing in his speech as quotable and powerful as Kennedy’s classic line – “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country’ – Obama nonetheless makes it clear that a new sense of unity will be needed to tackle the world’s problems. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” said Obama, “a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”

Truthfully, Obama offers no phrase as succinct yet beautifully poetic as Kennedy’s “Trumpet Summon” phrase – a phrase that captures both the austere quality of the challenges facing humanity and the defiant hope of Kennedy and the American people. Yet, Obama offers something as powerful, if not as poetic, when he celebrates the diversity of America:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

Even this, Obama’s salute to the diversity and promise of America – the qualities that made his presidency possible – recalls Kennedy, who broke a boundary himself as the first Catholic President.

Obama’s Inaugural Address might have lacked the poetic quotability of Kennedy’s, but it did not lack the substance. The ambitious vision of a better America and a peaceful world delivered by Obama is strikingly similar to the one Kennedy outlined in his own speech, 48 years prior.

We’ll have to wait and see if Obama can carry out his vision.


Written by acs2008

January 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm

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