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Opinion

January 19, 2013

Shribman: Obama’s inaugural: Where would he have us go?

This is a tale of two speeches. They occur three weeks apart. One is outdoors, one indoors. In one the president faces west, where he was born, reared, came of age, and where his outlook — great possibilities, new beginnings — is rooted. In the other, the president faces Congress, where he served for less than four years, where the destiny of his hopes will be decided, where his greatest troubles lie.

The first speech, of course, is his inaugural address on Monday. In it he must set the tone for his second term and give a sense of the kind of country, society and world he is trying to shape. The second speech is his State of the Union address on Feb. 12. That is a different kind of speech entirely.

Presumably the president is at work on both. He knows that very few inaugural addresses resonate in the national memory and that almost no State of the Union address counts for much. The one is a musical overture to a presidential term, the other a dry docket with all the violin music of a shopping list, though George W. Bush did use his 2002 address to declaim on the “axis of evil.”

More than many presidents, Barack Obama has learned the limits of the power of the presidency, a concept promulgated by political scientist Richard Neustadt, whose book on presidential leadership John F. Kennedy distributed to his advisers. But he understands that he has the capacity to set a direction, which he can do again Monday — a different task than setting an agenda, which he is to do Feb. 12.

Inaugural addresses reflect the times in which they are delivered, which is why Franklin Roosevelt spoke in 1933 of the danger of fear itself, and why Abraham Lincoln in 1861 addressed the South: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”

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