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Commentary: What Obama must say Tuesday

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Barack Obama has a great opportunity in his inaugural speech
  • He says presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan spoke eloquently
  • Obama must restore confidence and articulate a philosophy of government, he says
  • Zelizer: Obama should summon Americans to serve their country
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely on current events.

Julian Zelizer says Barack Obama has a great opportunity in his speech Tuesday but must use it well.

Julian Zelizer says Barack Obama has a great opportunity in his speech Tuesday but must use it well.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- The inaugural address is a seminal moment in the development of every president. This is a relatively short speech, normally thin on detail and big on message points.

Obama, an inspirational orator, must use this opportunity well. As he confronts an enormously challenging economy and an unstable world, particularly after the terrorist attacks in India and fighting in Gaza, Obama must capitalize on this moment to positively shape the character of his presidency.

If he looks back in time for guidance, Obama can learn a lot from some of his predecessors as he decides which messages should and should not make it into the final text.

One source of inspiration should be President John F. Kennedy, the other young and charismatic commander-in-chief, who in 1961 delivered one of the most moving inaugural speeches in American history. The entire event was meant to provide Americans with a sense the nation was moving forward into a new era.

The Kennedy clan joined him on stage, and African-American singer Marian Anderson sang the national anthem. The battle for civil rights was heating up at this time, so Kennedy's choice for the anthem sent a signal to the public, especially Southerners, that he was committed to achieving integration.

But it was his words that made the biggest impression. Few sentences have resonated as powerfully as Kennedy's call on Americans to embrace civic obligation as he said: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

One of Dwight Eisenhower's speechwriters said to Kennedy that "you have truly inspired the excitement of the people." The speech was a smash hit.

In that one sentence, Kennedy highlighted the theme of service to the country that has been sorely lacking from political debate since 9/11. Even as the nation entered into a prolonged war against terrorism, Americans have not been asked to do much for the nation. We were told to shop to keep the economy moving.

The government did not seek to restore the draft, it did not seriously pursue a national service program and taxes were cut. By re-introducing the theme of civic obligation in post 9/11 America, Obama can explain what each American in 2009 owes the country rather than vice versa.

He does not need to do so in a reprimanding tone, but should instead, like Kennedy, package his call to participate within a broader message about the greatness this nation is capable of achieving.

A second theme in Obama's address must be the restoration of national confidence in the economy, in the government and in the country itself.

Here Obama can turn to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his landmark address in 1933, FDR attempted to calm a nation that faced a 25 percent jobless rate and a banking system deteriorating by the day.

FDR explained to Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts." Through these words, he hit the perfect note.

FDR inspired many voters who had doubts as to whether the Depression would ever end and whether this president would be different from Herbert Hoover. According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., almost half a million people wrote letters to the White House with words of praise, including one person who said, "it was the finest thing this side of heaven."

The speech established an intellectual foundation for the First Hundred Days, a period when FDR boldly embarked on improvisational policymaking that stabilized the economy and offered a commitment by the government to seek security for the country.

Today, Americans need to have their confidence restored once again. Right from the start, FDR understood that the path to true political greatness was to play to the hopes and aspirations of the nation, even in crisis, rather than its fears.

Obama must do the same.

Finally, Obama needs to outline a philosophy of government. Though President Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama come from different political traditions, Reagan took a step with his first inaugural address that could serve as a useful as a model for Obama.

Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." In doing so, he offered his supporters and opponents a core argument to guide his initiatives and help keep the various factions of the conservative movement behind his presidency.

Obama takes over the White House after decades when Democrats have struggled to define what their party is about. Democrats have spent much of their time fighting a rear-guard action against modern conservatism, focusing most on distancing themselves from the word liberalism, usually failing to inform American voters just what they would stand for if they regained control.

Now is the chance for Democrats to do something different. As president, Obama must start the process of definition with a line like Reagan's.

Throughout the campaign, even Obama's supporters acknowledged that his ideas about government, as opposed to his approach to electoral politics, remained vague. Using Reagan as an example, Obama should tell Americans what ideas will guide his efforts as he attempts to revitalize the country.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world will be watching and listening as Obama delivers his first major speech as president. The new president will succeed if he can use this moment as the first step for his overarching concept -- his New Deal, his Great Society, his struggle to get the country moving again.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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