I was biased by "Saying What Matters in 701 Words," Lincoln scholar Ronald C. White Jr.'s powerful argument in the Sunday New York Times for Obama's keeping his second inaugural address as short and sweet as Lincoln's. Lincoln said his 701 words and sat down, and critics have been hailing them ever since. "This year's audience will expect Mr. Obama to detail his priorities for the next four years, from fixing the economy to reforming immigration to curbing gun violence," White recalled. "Maybe, like Lincoln, he should surprise his audience." He advised Obama to offer "not a lawyerly, rational address on the issues facing our nation but a president ready to share his heart. And daring to tell us how we must change."
That sounded like just the thing. But Obama reached his 701st word in roughly the same breath with which he was saying that "We, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class." That smacked not only of politics but of a speech that still had a long way to go (two-thirds of it, as it turned out). And he was already done with his Lincoln channeling, having remarked early on that "through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free." A sop to White! I thought. Won't do.
Then again, Obama had Democratic strategist Paul Begala to think about. Begala offered his views on "What Obama Should Say on Monday" on the Daily Beast. Begala also had Lincoln on his mind—as well as a surefire formula for seizing the moment. "If President Obama is to have a successful second term, he would do well to echo Lincoln’s noble rhetoric, then copy his ruthless deeds." advised Begala. "After all is said and done, what’s done matters more than what’s said." And when Obama scorned the "shrinking few [who] do very well," I bet Begala was thinking, that's the ticket.
And on Salon, doctoral student John Paul Rollert was anticipating Obama's address as "a unique opportunity to describe the challenges of a common capitalism and to put forward a vision of economic development that doesn't see us waiting on the deliverance of an enlightened few, but one in which there is dignity and place for everyone to lend a hand." For in Rollert's view, "an aristocracy of talents is no doubt preferable to the politics of plutocracy, but neither one is commensurate with a vision of capitalism that takes as its point of departure, and its final destination, a concern for the common good. President Obama recognizes this."
I wonder if Rollert recognized the Obama he was looking for in this passage: "We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
Here's William Kristol, no admirer of Obama's, telling Obama what he should not say. You probably don't have the stones not to quote Lincoln at all, reasoned Kristol (in not those words), but at the very least don't repeat his "quatrain" from the Second Inaugural:
Fondly do we hope—
Fervently do we pray—
That this mighty scourge of war
May speedily pass away.
For Lincoln had preceded these lines with news that "the progress of our arms" had been satisfactory, and Obama could hardly say that about the war in Iraq, where he "squandered victory," or in Afghanistan, where he was "squandering the achievements of the surge."
So Kristol's advice to Obama was to put a cork in it for now, and during his term embrace "tough-minded and hard-headed policies."
So what did Obama say about Iraq and Afghanistan? He didn't mention either by name.
Bill Moyers asked Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, what Obama should say about climate change. "This issue has to stop being a partisan issue," Leiserowitz responded. "The earth's climate does not care whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. It doesn't care whether you're a liberal or a conservative."
Said Obama Monday, "We, the people . . . will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."
Yahoo asked its contributors and readers what they wanted to hear from the president. Noting that "Obama campaigned on the idea that we're all in this together, as Americans," Jared Spurbeck said, "I'd like him to remind everyone that LGBT . . . Americans matter too, and that he'll work to secure our right to marry and protect us from violence."
Obama: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."
"Mr. President, please remind us who we are," asked Edward Prato. "We are more than mere partisans."
Obama: "We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional—what makes us American—is our allegiance to an idea."
"Our constitution guarantees us the right to bear arms," offered Jocelyn Fredrics. "But shouldn't U.S citizens have the right to live without fear of being harmed by those guns?"
Obama: "Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm."
And from Alfonso Coley: "My wish is that President Obama will grant everyone free dental care."
For encouraging words, Mr. Coley will have to wait until 2016.