Obama faces big challenges with inaugural address

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Barack Obama faces the challenge of reassuring Americans they can rebound from a time of economic peril in an inaugural address that is one of the most eagerly anticipated in modern times.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama walks along the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 'We Are One': Inaugural Celebration in Washington January 18, 2009. REUTERS/Molly Riley

Obama’s speech, delivered from the steps of the U.S. Capitol moments after he is sworn into office at midday on Tuesday, will give him his best opportunity to advance the goals of his White House before a massive audience.

With millions of Americans without jobs, the U.S. economy crippled and U.S. troops fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has no shortage of expectations for his speech, which he has been working on for weeks.

“The speech will describe the moment we’re in and the spirit required to emerge from this crisis even stronger and more united than before,” said an Obama spokesman, Nick Shapiro.

Former presidential speechwriters said they expected Obama to avoid outlining a laundry list of proposals and instead use his lofty oratory to describe the challenges Americans face and a way out of them.

“The inaugural address is a speech where a president begins with first principles and sets a direction for the country,” said a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, Jeff Shesol. “He defines a moment in time. He gives you a sense of who he is, how he sees this moment, and where he thinks we need to go.”

Not only Americans will stop what they are doing on Tuesday to hear the new leader. People the world over are interested.

In Japan, many book stores now have a section dedicated to Obama, and ahead of his inauguration this month, a collection of his speeches, starting with what the book calls as the “legendary” 2004 Democratic Convention speech to the victory speech in November has become a best-seller.


For inspiration Obama has been reading inaugural addresses from presidents past.

Out of more than 50 inaugural address, only a few outlasted their times. Among the best were Abraham Lincoln’s “with malice toward none” in 1865 near the end of the Civil War; John Kennedy’s 1961 cry that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” and Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 speech during the Great Depression.

Obama, a big fan of fellow Illinois man Lincoln, told USA Today he felt Lincoln’s speech was the best and Kennedy’s second best. He was not particularly impressed by Roosevelt’s.

“You know, FDR’s actually isn’t that great,” he said. “It’s got a great line, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ The rest is kinda clunky.”

He said he was reasonably happy with his own speech “but we can still do some tinkering.

“My job in this speech is just to remind people of the road we’ve traveled and the extraordinary odds that we’ve already overcome. We’ve been through tougher times before and we’re going to get through these,” he said.

Michael Anton, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said Obama may well need to avoid making too many promises.

“He’s riding this big wave and he has a lot of die-hard supporters who think the sun is going to come out on January 20 and the world is going to be a fundamentally different place,” Anton said. “I think he needs to temper expectations.”

Presidential scholar Thomas Schwartz, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said one challenge for Obama will be how to suggest a new beginning without being too hard on outgoing President Bush, who will be seated nearby.

“He does not want to begin with an excessively harsh critique of Bush,” Schwartz said.

Kennedy was able to implicitly criticize the president he succeeded, Dwight Eisenhower, without sounding partisan, said Schwartz.

Much time and effort has been put into the speech.

Aides said Obama had his first meeting to talk about themes of his speech in the week before the Thanksgiving holiday in November, talking to top speechwriter Jon Favreau and senior adviser David Axelrod.

The first draft emerged in early December and work continued in subsequent weeks, with Obama making extensive writing and editing on his own last weekend.

Editing by David Wiessler