The United States has confronted economic uncertainty and wars in the past, but handling both problems at the same time puts us at a unique point in American history. It was under these conditions that Obama had to give his inaugural address, needing to give hope and ideas for problems at home and abroad. In contrast, Lincoln’s problems were domestic, whereas Kennedy’s were international.
Lincoln’s first speech was lengthy, dealing with slavery and the impending Civil War. His second was much shorter and toward the end of the war, with the goal of national reconciliation. Along that theme, Lincoln’s second inaugural has the famous quote:
With malice toward none, with charity for all
Kennedy inherented different problems. With the threat of Communism as his main focus and in the prism of post-Korean War and pre-Vietnam War (or at least in its earliest stages), international relations was Kennedy’s focus.
Kennedy’s inaugural speech (which in terms of writing was better than Obama’s, but not delivered as well) included oft-quoted lines, such as:
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
People also tend to quote:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
But they forget that this is only the leading line to a further idea that is also about the world at large. The following line is:
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
With the U.S. involved in two wars abroad and the global crises of finance and climate change, Obama did not have the comparative luxury of focused rhetoric that Kennedy had in his inaugural. As of December 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment had increased 2.3% from the prior year, to reach 7.2%. Some have suggested that this could go as high as 10%. When Kennedy assumed office, unemployment had been stable for the past year 5.5%. Regarding other domestic issues, the civil rights movement was in progress, but did not reach critical critical mass until further into the 1960’s.
Lincoln guided us through the Civil War and Kennedy confronted the Cuban Missile Crisis, avoiding nuclear war. It remains to be seen whether Obama will live up to the ideas of his inaugural address and to the prior presidents that he has been so favorably compared to.