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From Obama, We'll Hear Lincoln, Roosevelt

From Obama, We'll Hear Lincoln, Roosevelt

By Kyle Trygstad - January 20, 2009

The United States economy is in crisis, and it's a certainty that much of Barack Obama's inaugural speech today will focus on that very topic. Presidents past have come into office facing daunting circumstances as well, and Obama and his speechwriters may lean on the likes of Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as resources.

Obama is an outspoken admirer of both Lincoln and Roosevelt, and his recent speeches -- including at the Lincoln Memorial concert Sunday -- illustrate that. A number of Obama's lines are reminiscent of what the nation heard in inaugural speeches in 1861 and 1933, when the Union was literally breaking apart and the economy was in worse shape than today.

"In the course of our history, only a handful of generations have been asked to confront challenges as serious as the ones we face right now," Obama said Sunday from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before laying out in Hemingway-like sentences exactly what the country is facing.

Compare that to what Lincoln said in March 1861, as he related his situation -- a country split in half over slavery -- to that of his predecessors.

"It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our National Constitution," Lincoln said. "During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered the executive branch of the Government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted."

Here is another snippet from Obama's relatively brief speech Sunday.

"I won't pretend that meeting any one of these challenges will be easy," Obama said. "It will take more than a month or a year, and it will likely take many. Along the way there will be setbacks and false starts and days that test our fundamental resolve as a nation. But despite all of this -- despite the enormity of the task that lies ahead -- I stand here today as hopeful as ever that the United States of America will endure - that the dream of our founders will live on in our time."

Now compare those lines to the opening paragraph of Roosevelt's inaugural speech in March 1933. With the country deep in depression, Roosevelt decided to sugarcoat over nothing.

"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," Roosevelt said. "This is pre-eminently 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."

From start to finish, Lincoln's speech was aimed directly at the South, as he forcefully explained why secession was not a suitable resolution. Likewise, Roosevelt used the vast majority of his speech to explain his plans for solving the country's economic ailments. With the country at war, Obama won't be able to focus solely on the economy, but he'll otherwise look to follow in their footsteps.

As he takes his first steps in the sand as United States president and commander-in-chief, it would be hard to argue with that path.

Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: kyle@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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