When Obama was elected in 2008, comparisons to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were often invoked. Yet if the problem ahead of him is indeed to be surmounted, it will be because he finally truly looks back to these tight presidential races of the past and what the victors did after taking office as he prepares for his second term.
The elections of 1860 and 1960 were both close, divisive contests. And the winners, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, each took the Oath of Office amid collective discord and anxiety, much like today. Also like today, Lincoln and Kennedy both won the Electoral College with room to spare, though not one of the three presidents claimed a strong majority of the popular vote.
The scenario that Lincoln encountered as president was even more dramatic than the election he won. With the country split along the fault line of slavery and the specter of civil war hanging over his inauguration, the 16th president played just about every card he could toward holding the country together.
Kennedy’s challenges in 1960 were less dramatic but still profound. The first Catholic and the youngest man elected to the presidency, Kennedy took up the reins of power in the midst of an economic recession, an intensifying Cold War, a growing Civil Rights movement and the emerging geopolitical importance of Southeast Asia. Against this backdrop, the 35th president was careful, temperate and, at the same time, bold in the vision he outlined directly to the American people, calling them to embrace the “unknown opportunities and perils” of a new frontier.
Obama like Kennedy, and like Kennedy’s predecessor 100 years earlier, needs to be conscious of the slim, fractious victory he owns.
That Obama frames his second inaugural address well is extremely important for this reason. Both Lincoln and Kennedy used their first major speech to the American people as a unifying tool, writing and redrafting the address (with input from advisers) in order to both frame the stakes of the larger moment and to call the American people to the higher, animating purpose of their country. What resulted were two of the most powerful and resonant lines in U.S. history—Lincoln’s closing words about “the better angels of our nature” and Kennedy’s iconic invocation to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
We know Obama, too, is capable of writing and delivering a speech that both frames the importance of the issues that the American people confront and that speaks to the “better angels” of our nature. He did so during the 2008 campaign when he spoke powerfully about race, and in early 2011 when he delivered a memorial speech for the victims of the Tucson shooting involving former U.S. representative Gabrielle Giffords. These addresses were inspiring and thoughtful, but others like them have been few—very few—and far between during the last four years.