- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009




When Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address today, he will set his administration’s tone. President Obama will take the reins of a country enmeshed in an existential battle with terrorists, two hot wars and an economic mess unparalleled since the Great Depression.

Although a daunting task, this is not the first time a president has delivered an inaugural address in periods of crisis. The addresses of other presidents who took the oath of office in such times provide clues as to what President Obama’s inaugural should include. He needs to speak the truth to the world and America about the difficulties that lie ahead, state his plans to lead the country through these challenges, and urge Americans to shoulder the responsibility for the country’s, and their own, fate.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) extolled the virtues of speaking truth to power in his “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” 1933 inaugural speech. The occasion “is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” said FDR, and “only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” Like then, today is no time for false promises. Bold action is required.

President Truman, staring down the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War, declared in his address that “it may be our lot to experience, and in a large measure bring about, a major turning point in the long history of the human race.” Today, the world also faces a crossroad. This epoch struggle will take time - perhaps longer than the decades that marked the Cold War.

President Obama would do well to again remind Americans just that, as he did in the early morning hours of Nov. 5. “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days,” said President John Kennedy in 1961. “Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.” Now the “us” has to include more than a paper-thin “coalition of the willing.”

Strong alliances, both internal and external, need to be repaired and built, as presidents such as Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan vowed in their inaugurals. President Obama would be wise to ask U.S. allies for help, especially regarding increased efforts in Afghanistan. Mr. Reagan’s inaugural included a call to match “loyalty with loyalty,” and for “mutually beneficial relations.” President Obama should tell allies and foes alike what the United States expects and offers.

Candidate Obama’s position on negotiating with U.S. enemies received much criticism. He should not back down when he is the president. Presidents from both parties have stated similar ideas, including Presidents Kennedy (“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”), Nixon (“I know that peace does not come through wishing for it - that there is no substitute for days and even years of patient and prolonged diplomacy”), and Reagan (“We will negotiate for [peace], sacrifice for it.”).

The present economic turmoil helped catapult candidate Obama to the White House. Accordingly, much from FDR’s first inaugural applies today, such as the “practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion,” and “there must be strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments, so that there will be an end to speculation with other people’s money.” It will take a bipartisan effort. Mr. Obama must continue to “reach across the aisle” and work with both parties and the legislative branch. As Lincoln said, “unanimity is impossible,” but the majority “is the only true sovereign of a free people.”

Mr. Obama needs to call upon the American democracy’s core power, the people, to dig out of the hole in which the country finds itself. Other presidents have echoed the sentiments of “ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.” FDR called on citizens to make up a “loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of common discipline.” President Nixon said, “What has to be done, has to be done by government and people together or it will not be done at all.” And President Lyndon Johnson held that “each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the Nation, thus finding new purpose for ourselves.” President Obama must demonstrate true leadership to keep the citizenry devoted to a distant goal through the hardship necessary to get there.

When President Reagan looked out on the Mall for his first inaugural address, he recognized many of the monuments “to the giants on whose shoulders we stand.” On Jan. 20, President Obama continues his path towards becoming one of those giants. He should choose his words carefully.

Dr. Tammy S. Schultz is a Principal in the Truman National Security Project and the Director of National Security and Joint Warfare at the Marine Corps War College, where Dr. Robert J. Mahoney is the Dean.

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