John F. Kennedy had Ted Sorenson to help him craft his Inaugural Address; Barack Obama has had Jon Favreau, a 27-year old wunderkind, as his campaign's head speechwriter. But Barack Obama also has himself. Before there was even a presidential campaign, he wrote his breakthrough 2004 speech himself and, in the middle of that campaign, when he had to deliver his crucial speech about race, the word is that he wrote it himself.
Given the extraordinary circumstances and focus on his presidency, it would seem that his Inaugural Address, too, has to be a completely personal effort. And there is no question that he has the skills to do it.
But what will he say?
Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor, in an excellent New Yorker article about the evolution of inaugural speeches, says, "Inaugurals are written for the future, but they look, mostly, to the past."
Jeff Shesol, one of Bill Clinton's speechwriters, participated in a New York Times forum about inaugurals with other former presidential speechwriters, in which he recommended that Obama should "strike the right balance between speaking to the moment and speaking to history; between addressing the audience and addressing the ages."
Another history professor advocates looking to the past to develop themes for the future. Julian E. Zelizer, of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, proposes three themes drawn from three previous president's inaugural speeches.
1. "Explain what each American owes the country in 2009 rather than vice versa," as Kennedy did in his Inaugural: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
2. Restore "national confidence in the economy, in the government and in the country itself," as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in his First Inaugural: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
3. "Outline a philosophy of government" as Ronald Reagan did in his First Inaugural, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Obama, an avid historian, often looks to the past. He references Abraham Lincoln frequently for both his civil rights pioneering and for his poetic prose. But, as he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos, "Every time you read that second inaugural, you start getting intimidated ...there's a genius to Lincoln that is not going to be matched." Obama then went on to say that the main task in his speech was, "to try to capture as best I can the moment that we are in ... and then to project confidence that if we take the right measures that we can once again be that country; that beacon for the world."
Anna Quindlen emphasizes the importance of projection in her Newsweek column, "He needs to unite, to inspire and to challenge. There's no better way to do that than by delivering a great speech about great matters ... a speech to make the hair rise on the neck and the heart sing in the breast."
Given Obama's past performances on the podiums of the country, there is no doubt that he can do that.
Yes, he can.