Barack Obama’s presidency will not only make history because of his ancestry, it also marks a generational gap in the leadership of the United States.
Will history be kind to Obama’s inaugural speech?
SHOW: CANADA AM CTV Television, Inc. 8:18:30 ET January 21, 2009
ANCHORS: BEVERLY THOMSON
GUESTS: GIL TROY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN
US PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us. And we will defeat you.
[Taped segment ends]
THOMSON: President Barack Obama took a hard line against the threat of terrorist attacks. And he also signalled that the United States is tired of war and wants to leave Iraq to its own people. He also talked about Afghanistan in that speech.
For more on Obama’s inauguration, joining me now is presidential historian Gil Troy.
Great to have you on to discuss this. There are so many different measuring sticks as to the success or the impact that this speech is having or will have. What did you think of it?
TROY: I agree with most people that it wasn’t as lyrical and as soaring as people expected, as people have come to expect from Obama who’s just an extraordinary orator.
But I think the more we read the speech, rather than just thinking about it and listening to it, we see that there was a lot of substance in it. And it’s important to see that what he was trying to do — he was the one person in that sea of 2 million people who was saying: Whoa, slow down. I’m not the Messiah.
And I think that was important. But he also was showing the way that he’s going to govern. He’s going to not be someone who’s just going to be a mindless 1960s liberal. He’s going to bring back government but with thoughts. And he wanted to say also “I am not a wimp” — which was the message in that opening quotation you used.
THOMSON: You know, he also talked about a nation of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. And he spoke about everybody needing to come together. And that was one of the points within this speech that the crowd just erupted in applause.
Have you ever seen — certainly there may have been more, you know, out-of-the-park speeches that you’ve seen in your time. But have you ever seen a reaction like that where a crowd that big, so many reduced to tears out of hope and faith?
TROY: You’re absolutely right, the crowd was the star of the day. Or a co-star with Obama and his family.
There were 2 million people there. And it was cold. And it was crowded. And it was really unpleasant. But there was something so magical about it that people didn’t grouch, they didn’t grumble, they were just so excited to be a part of it.
There have never been so many people at an inauguration. And I think it showed that the very essence of Obama, the very fact that he was becoming president — and not just because he’s the first African-American, I think that in some ways has almost been overplayed — but also because after eight years of Bush, because he’s young, because he’s charismatic, because the nation is facing such serious challenges, all these things came together and created this remarkable, magical moment.
And the hope is that he can actually now turn that magic into serious governance.
THOMSON: Well, certainly a lot of chatter about the first 100 days. What will you be watching for?
TROY: I think two things: how he plays the symbols and then turns it into substance. And most important, of course, he’s got to get a grip on the nation’s economic trouble. It was very sobering that the stock market dropped yesterday. It also dropped after his election. And I think he’s watching that. He knows that the bankers are worried, that the finance people are worried.
And in general there’s always a problem with the Democrats — they sometimes don’t have the same credibility with Wall Street. Although Bill Clinton was able to get that kind of credibility. So, it’s very important that he show that he’s going to be someone who’s effective with Wall Street as well as with Main Street.
THOMSON: How tough is it going to be for him to meet these extremely high expectations?
TROY: Extremely tough. And I think he knows that. He knows, you know, “hope” is this balloon that gets inflated and inflated. And on the one hand it can elevate us. But it can also be easily overinflated and pop.
And we forget how much hope there was surrounding that Man from Hope, Bill Clinton. We forget how much hope there was surrounding that first Southerner elected since Reconstruction, Jimmy Carter. And both of them ended up with much more complicated presidencies.
So, Obama is smart. He knows his history. He keeps on invoking Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt because they were people who came in in some ways with low expectations and were able to soar. And I think he’d rather have that dynamic than the dynamic of yet another Democrat who comes in with incredibly high expectations and leaves people sort of disappointed and a little bit with a hangover.
THOMSON: Gil Troy, always great to talk to you about this. Thank you so much.
TROY: Thank you.