As Barack Obama drafts his second inaugural speech, he should remember the speeches that made him president. He should ponder the vision of multicultural nationalism in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote. He should revive the controlled but righteous indignation in his 2008 address on race relations that defused the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy. And he should tap into the lyrical patriotism that made his first victory speech soar. He also should ignore his first inaugural address – which replaced the eloquent, electrifying, inspiring “Yes We Can” candidate he was with the technocratic, overwhelmed, sobering president he has become.
The contrast on Inauguration Day 2009, between his restrained speech and the crowd’s near messianic expectations was striking. Fans hailed Mr. Obama for recognizing the challenges. But after four years of pedestrian appeals to Americans as sensible “folks,” Americans need less schoolmarm and more romance, less presidential cod liver oil and more rhetorical bubbly.
True, Mr. Obama’s sober response was logical. When succeeding Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1945, Harry Truman said he felt as if the “moon and stars” had fallen upon him. Mr. Obama telegraphed similar combinations of humility and fear – and has continually emphasized his constraints. After the Sandy Hook massacre, reflecting many Americans’ frustration with Mr. Obama’s caution, this time regarding gun violence, ABC’s Jake Tapper asked: “Where have you been?” Mr. Obama answered, characteristically, by mentioning “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, an auto industry on the verge of collapse, two wars.” He then said, “all of us have to do some reflection on how we prioritize what we do here in Washington.”
Mr. Obama’s prioritizing prudence is reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s initial stiffness when speaking at the August, 1963, civil rights march. The singer Mahalia Jackson, who had heard him mesmerize crowds before, yelled, “tell them about your dream Martin.” Mr. King did – and made history.
Mr. Obama must now let loose, offering the lyrical leadership Americans crave – and which they originally hired him to deliver. Americans want a public educator and consensus builder, not a technocratic grind.
Mr. Obama should use moments like the Newtown massacre to channel public indignation into action. He should learn from eloquent predecessors like Mr. King, and like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former Harvard professor and America’s Ambassador to the UN who denounced the 1975 Zionism is racism resolution, even though his boss Henry Kissinger ordered him to be less confrontational and it was not clear that attacking the UN would be popular with Americans. Mr. Moynihan’s moment also made history. “An issue of honor, of morality, was put before us and not all of us ran,” Mr. Moynihan explained.
This politics of patriotic indignation should mix with a grandeur of moral imagination. Unlike Mr. Obama, John Kennedy ignored the hopes his presidency generated. In 1962, when briefed about new ideas mobilizing young African Americans, Mr. Kennedy asked “where are they getting them?” His adviser Louis Martin exclaimed: “From you!” Still, only in June, 1963 did Mr. Kennedy define civil rights as “primarily” a “moral issue,” as “old as the Scriptures” and “as clear as the American Constitution.”
Decades later, even when Mr. Obama helped pass landmark health care legislation, he failed to define the issue clearly. His phrasemakers’ toolbox always seems locked, his sense of drama muted. When confronting Republicans, even when faced with fiscal cliffs and uncontrolled guns, “No Drama Obama” often seems more miffed than mad, more politically inconvenienced than morally indignant.
Americans do not just want melodrama. America needs a muscular moderate, an artful orator, to capture the moment, forge a national consensus, and brand it effectively. Abraham Lincoln did it in his second inaugural by envisioning a Reconstruction based on “malice toward none.” Franklin D. Roosevelt mixed indignation with imagination in his second inaugural when he tackled the problem of “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Ronald Reagan played off decades of anti-Soviet pique when he insisted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” while Bill Clinton defined his second term as more affirmative than negative in building his “bridge to the twenty-first century.”
Americans have had enough fiscal cliffs and Republican-Democratic brinksmanship; they now want, they now need, clear new horizons and all-American statesmanship. America’s past offers Obama the precedents. America’s present offers Obama the agenda. America’s future will benefit if he can rise to the occasion rhetorically during this inaugural address and substantively during his second term.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books, including Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just published by Oxford University Press.
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