Obama’s message of hope and change uplifted a nation; yet, a similar rhetoric of promise and peril has been used by many Presidents to highlight the national condition.
Barak Obama began his presidency by revealing a stark reality: “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices…Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.”
While the cataloguing of contemporary dangers and fears is a common feature of presidential speeches, so too is the call for change. “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
Although Obama’s plot of impending peril and promise galvanized a nation, the language is not unique to his historical moment. Many American Presidents begin their term of office by laying out their vision of the national condition in similar binary terms. Employing a lexicon of corruption and degeneration, the virtue of American progress is punctuated by a fear of the future and the need for restoration and renewal.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson railed against the evils of ‘unlimited enterprise.’ The ‘hurry to be great’, he claimed, had unleashed ‘alien and sinister forces’: ‘Our thought has been “Let every man look out for himself, let every generation look out for itself,” while we reared giant machinery which made it impossible that any but those who stood at the levers of control should have a chance to look out for themselves.’
Like presidents before and after him, Wilson’s salve for the nation’s descent into unrestrained commercialism and self-interest was a concerted effort of restoration: “Our duty is to cleanse, to reconsider, to restore, to correct the evil without impairing the good.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower
In the 1950s Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a similar warning: “The world and we have passed the midway point of a century of continuing challenge. We sense with all our faculties that forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history.” It was a ‘time of tempest’ and the fear of inevitable repetition: “How far have we come in man’s long pilgrimage from darkness toward light? Are we nearing the light – a day of freedom and peace for all mankind? Or are the shadows of another night closing in upon us?”
John F. Kennedy
Anxious not to appear as pessimistic, John F. Kennedy reworked Eisenhower’s language of shadow and degeneration for a more optimistic generation. “We are not here to curse the darkness”, he claimed, “but to light the candle that can guide us through the darkness to a safe and sane future.” Nonetheless, he also noted that while man possesses “the power to exterminate the entire species some seven times over,” “dry rot…is seeping into every corner of America.”
For Kennedy, what was required to eliminate danger and quell fear was renewed courage and vigorous leadership. Kennedy envisioned America on the cusp of a new frontier, “a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils–a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”
Bill Clinton, too, although with no lingering catastrophe to brand his presidency, nonetheless reminded the American people that although the world was “warmed by the sunshine of freedom”, America remained threatened by “ancient hatred and new plagues.” And because the nation had “drifted”, called for a “new season of American renewal.”
While the rhetoric of change and hope is an inspiring feature of Obama’s discourse, his narrative of America is infused with a familiar counter narrative of stagnation, corruption and degeneration. And like his predecessors, the repeated call for restoration and renewal highlights the fear of decline that lurks beneath the belief in self-determination and progress.
As the exceptional violence and unparalleled scientific discoveries of the twentieth century suggest, history is not a linear, irreversible continuum ushering in the progressive notion of liberty; rather than a steady movement from savagery toward peace, civilization remains vulnerable to the cyclical movement of history and the corrosive effects of time. It is this fundamental paradox at the heart of the national narrative that links Obama’s rhetoric with his forefathers.
- Presidential Inaugural Addresses – Yale Law School