Measured by the impact of the language and imagery employed, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in 1865—"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right …"—stands as the most powerful of the 55 delivered between the founding of the republic and the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration. (Here’s the text of the speech.)
Of course, the resonance of Lincoln’s words came from the circumstances under which he delivered them. The Civil War, at last, was over, and as they mourned their dead sons and brothers, Americans wondered if and how their country could ever be one again. There was a yearning for a confident president who could tell the people that the future would be better than the past—and who could make them believe it.
What we’ll never know is how the momentum from Lincoln’s historic speech, which came on the heels of a landslide reelection victory in 1864, would have shaped his second term. Lincoln had deep popular support and considerable political capital, but just over a month after the speech, he was murdered.
But maybe, in a roundabout way, we’re about to find out what could have happened otherwise.
It’s extremely common for politicians to end up styling themselves after one or two of their favorite leaders from history. Sometimes their choice of role model is apt; sometimes it’s self-delusional. George W. Bush’s Churchill complex clearly falls into the second category; John McCain’s infatuation with Teddy Roosevelt, the courageous war hero who relished picking fights with a stodgy Republican establishment, seems a lot more realistic.
Mr. Obama’s infatuation is with Abraham Lincoln, his fellow (non-native) Illinoisan. He launched his campaign nearly two years ago on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, where Lincoln once served in the Illinois Legislature. And, before being sworn in on Tuesday on the same Bible used for Lincoln’s own 1861 inaugural, Mr. Obama stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday afternoon to address hundreds of thousands of supporters who’d made their way to Washington for his inaugural.
As with Mr. McCain and T.R., there is more than a little something to Mr. Obama’s sense of kinship with Lincoln. Neither man (as Mr. Obama and his supporters repeatedly pointed out during the campaign) had an extensive political résumé before running for president, and both catapulted to national prominence with mesmerizing oratory—Lincoln through his famous Cooper Union speech in early 1860 and Mr. Obama through his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention. And both believed they were on unifying missions—Lincoln to save the Union, and Mr. Obama (as he has said often in the run-up to his inaugural) to create a more perfect one.
But what makes the analogy particularly apt is that, as in 1865 and only a few other times between then and now, the public is once again hungering for a confident and clear-headed president to lead them out of dire circumstances. There’s no Civil War going on, but there are two wars overseas and an economy back home whose basic foundation is threatened in a way not seen since the Great Depression. Pride and confidence are sagging, the middle class is evaporating, and there’s a pervasive sense that the bad news is here to stay.
Few presidents have a chance to deliver an Inaugural Address under circumstances like this. The upside is obvious: The entire nation is watching and listening, eager to believe and open to whatever personal challenges their new leader might lay before them. Words and phrases that might fall flat or clichéd in another year take on surprising weight and significance. F.D.R.’s "nothing to fear but fear itself" line might have sounded merely clever in, say, 1920, but as the Depression bore down on America, it rallied the country around him, vesting him with an army of popular support that compelled a previously immobile Senate into the busiest 100-day stretch of legislative activity ever seen.
Likewise, George H. W. Bush’s emphasis on community and national service in his 1989 Inaugural Address provoked a benignly favorable response, but the speech, delivered amid strong economic times and (relative) international tranquility, was forgotten almost immediately. Mr. Obama seems poised to stress some of those same themes in his own address, but this time they surely won’t go unnoticed.
In the modern age, theater also counts for a lot, and no figure in American politics today is better suited to the "big speech" moment as Mr. Obama is. This gift for oratory will render Mr. Obama’s message infinitely more impactful, giving him the opportunity to enjoy the same second mandate that F.D.R. won through his own Inaugural Address.
Lincoln never had to perform for television or radio. But he was renowned as one of his generation’s finest orators, too; chances are, he would have been a natural in the broadcast medium. What Lincoln did for a crowd at the Capitol in 1865, Mr. Obama has the opportunity to do for a live audience measuring in the hundreds of millions. Then he will try to bring about the more perfect Union that his role model once envisioned, but never had the chance to deliver.