Having slept on it, I’m still not terribly fond of Barack Obama’s speech yesterday, which I thought could have been more joyous and celebratory. The nation knows that our economy is in trouble and that the next year or so (at least) is liable to be a fairly difficult one, but I’m not sure that we needed so many reminders of that on the day of Obama’s inauguration itself.
Then again, it’s not the President’s job to make us feel good. Since the NBER began dating recessions in 1854, quite a few of the 44 Presidents have been sworn in during one, including Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Cleveland (both times), McKinley, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt and Truman. Obama is the first President since Truman, however, to deliver an inaugural address during a recession. And Truman’s case requires an asterisk, since he did not deliver an inaugural address after taking over for Roosevelt (although, the United States was also in recession when Truman was inaugurated to his first fullterm in 1949). So in some senses, Roosevelt offers the most recent parallel.
And there are certainly a lot of echoes of Roosevelt’s speech in Obama’s. Consider Roosevelt’s opening:
I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
Now consider Obama’s:
Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.
Stylistically, a bit different, but the sentiment expressed is the same.
Or consider this moment from Obama about 10 minutes into the speech:
This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
And compare it to this phrasing from Roosevelt:
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
The parallels are striking enough that I’m sure they’re intentional. Whether or not you think Obama’s address “worked”, we can see where he’s coming from.
Closing thought: imagine if we looked at Roosevelt’s first inaugural address now and it had been cheerily optimistic, seemingly unaware of the problems of the moment. Wouldn’t that seem strange? Keep in mind that these things are written for history as well as for the present day.