It is a day — often cold, sometimes downright frigid — when the heat of the nation’s daily bickering somehow cools. It is a day above party, which is why, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson used the occasion to declare: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
Indeed, no chief executive comes to inauguration day, and to the podium outside the Capitol — on “democracy’s front porch,” as President George H.W. Bush put it in his 1989 inaugural address — with modest aspirations. This year, like most inaugural years, the president has big plans — but also big challenges.
Which is why the boasts in American inaugurations are almost always accompanied with the whisper of humility, a word that actually appears in six presidents’ inaugural addresses.
“I assume this trust in the humility of knowledge that only through the guidance of Almighty Providence can I hope to discharge its ever-increasing burdens,” Herbert Hoover said in 1929.
Harry Truman’s remarks 20 years later hit the same note: “I accept with humility the honor which the American people have conferred upon me.”
Barack Obama, accomplished autobiographer and welder of a historic political accomplishment, comes to his particular intersection of biography and history with an unusual combination of humility and audacity. There is, of course, a surface contradiction between the two, just as there is a contradiction between the speed with which he must move and the caution that he must exercise.
In fact, the Obama inauguration marks a series of American contradictions. The richest nation on earth is struggling with a financial crisis that may be rivaled only by the Great Depression. The strongest nation on earth is wrestling with its many weaknesses, including its inability to suppress insurgencies of the weak and powerless.
Obama’s inauguration will mark the ascension of the Democratic Party even as he speaks of a new, less partisan style of governing. He promises a new era in Washington and his administration is full of old hands, few older than the hands that belong to Leon E. Panetta, who last week was designated director of central intelligence and whose main qualification for the job is that his deft fingers have touched most parts of government before.
Yet this seems to be a moment of great renewal. A liberal California Democrat, committed to abortion rights and prominent in the outer rings of the Obama Venn diagram, called me the other afternoon to say how grateful he was that the president-elect has chosen Rick Warren, an outspoken abortion opponent who runs an evangelical mega-church, to deliver the invocation at the inaugural ceremony. That gesture built a bridge between this liberal, a political operative, and his conservative niece, a civilian.
What will Obama say? His hero and model, Abraham Lincoln, said a lot while speaking very little, an art that Obama’s most recent Democratic predecessor never mastered. Lincoln spoke, in his great second inaugural address, of the great war, but his speech was more about enduring themes than about whether the Union would long endure. (He used an even shorter speech, at Gettysburg, to declaim on that.)
Significance is obvious
My guess is that Obama will give a message that is both brisk and bracing. He need do little more than note the historic significance of a black hand on Lincoln’s Bible at the West Front of the Capitol. The picture on the front of every newspaper in the land Lincoln saved will tell the story.
Obama’s job is to soothe and to inspire. He must say that we have troubles, but that we have had troubles before, and overcame them. He must say that we have challenges, but that challenges are what made the country, and will remake it. He must say that our finances are shaky, but that a measure of a nation is not its treasury but its character.
All of these things are relevant to the world of Jan. 20, 2009, but none of them is confined to that date. They could have been said a hundred years earlier, or later.
Who would have thought that in the days leading up to the inauguration of the first black president, a columnist might quote the inaugural address of a rambunctious white-bread president who caroused his way through his White House years at the beginning of a great economic boom and is regarded as one of the worst chief executives ever? But history is at least one half irony, and so let us pause for a moment on a few sentences from Warren G. Harding that Obama might envy:
“We have seen the world rivet its hopeful gaze on the great truths on which the founders wrought. We have seen civil, human and religious liberty verified and glorified. In the beginning the Old World scoffed at our experiment; today our foundations of political and social belief stand unshaken, a precious inheritance to ourselves, an inspiring example of freedom and civilization to all mankind.”
Then there came this line: “We must strive for normalcy to reach stability.”
A new beginning
We are constantly redefining normalcy, and as a result we never achieve it. But Obama, who possesses an enviable inner calm, now must calm the nation’s nerves as he works to win a new national stability. He has it within him, and within his grasp.
For decades, even centuries, presidential candidates have dreamed about their inaugural day, knowing that it would be the one moment that is theirs alone.
More than almost any president, Obama represents a new beginning, a new approach, a new look. He will have accomplished something merely by taking the ancient oath, and will be remembered as an important president simply for doing that. He can be remembered as a great president, however, only if he does much more.