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Obama Claims Presidency, Cites Challenges Ahead

January 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks and historians offer their views on President Barack Obama's landmark inauguration and his promise for a new era of responsibility.
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to Shields and Brooks, our NewsHour analyzers in chief, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, “expectations” has been the keyword going into this. Were yours met today?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: I think so, but I think primarily by the crowd. And I was thinking this even before Gwen speaks, but I’m especially thinking it now — especially that first woman in the mall who Gwen interviewed.

The crowd had this joyous nature about it, and Obama spoke, but they all had their views and their say, and I think we’ll remember the images of the crowd, but we’ll also remember the voices of the crowd. And some of us who were around Washington the last couple days will remember the mood of incredible good cheer and joyousness of the crowd.

And that’s something that’s incredibly rare. Political speeches, even inaugural speeches, happen every four years.

As for the speech, I thought it was a good speech, not a great speech, but a good speech. What struck me is the celebratory nature of the crowd and, in some way, the optimistic nature of Obama’s speech, but also within that a very wintry spine, where he said, “We’ve had a collective failure to take hard decisions. We must put away childish things.” And then at the end, “We have to act more responsibly.”

And that’s really sort of a moral indictment of the country, not even a political indictment, but a moral indictment, and that preparation for tough times, time to get tough and get serious, is a wintry nature I think that the way Obama sees the country.

JIM LEHRER: Your expectations tonight, Mark, your expectations reading tonight?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Jim, in 1968, I was privileged to be in Ebenezer Baptist Church for Martin Luther King’s funeral. And the slogan that year was, “The whole world is watching.” That was the protest of those against the injustice in the country, against the war in the country.

Literally today, 40 years later, standing on the shoulders of Martin Luther King is Barack Obama and the nation, and the whole world is watching.

I have never seen an inaugural generate this kind of excitement, this kind of emotion, let alone this kind of a crowd. And I think we talk about transformational presidencies. This has been a transformational event, in many respects.

And I was particularly struck, as David was, the piece, Eugenia Pete, that Gwen did on the mall and realized, as I watched Barack Obama sign those nominations just before the luncheon in the piece that Ray did, that it was really a pageant of America’s change.

If you looked at that room, there was the first Senate majority leader who’s a Mormon. There was the first woman speaker of the House who’s an Italian-American. There was the first vice president of the United States who’s a Catholic. There’s the first woman chair of an inaugural…

JIM LEHRER: Inauguration, yes, Dianne Feinstein.

MARK SHIELDS: … inauguration event who’s the first woman senator from California, who was the first woman mayor of San Francisco, who’s Jewish. I mean, and you say, “Wow.” I mean, this is really remarkable. Yes, the first African-American president, but, I mean, it is a remarkable series of events.

I agree with David. It was not a great speech. Speeches have brought Barack Obama to where he is: the speech of 2004; certainly, the Reverend Wright speech; memorable speeches along the way, his announcement speech; the speech accepting the nomination.

This was not his greatest speech. But the speeches have brought him to where he is. And now it’s time for action and decisions, but it’s given him that chance to become a great president.

'Generational change'

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think when he talked about casting aside the old debates, which was also a major theme today, that's a generational change.

JIM LEHRER: "Wow" the word that Mark used, David. Is it "wow" more about the man, Barack Obama, or is it also "wow" about the times and the framework that Mark just outlined, or all together here?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's all these things, but, you know, Mark and many people have emphasized the racial nature, and that's truly historic, and the multicultural nature, this tableau Mark just painted.

But there's one element here which I think he speaks about the most and I think was a core element of his speech, which is a generational gap. We've seen in this -- today we saw George Bush, the elder World War II generation. We saw the two presidents we've had from the Baby Boom generation, Bush and Clinton.

But I think when he talked about casting aside the old debates, which was also a major theme today, that's a generational change.

JIM LEHRER: He's talking about that, as well, getting rid of all of that?

DAVID BROOKS: He's saying, you guys had this debate about Vietnam. You guys had this debate about big government versus small government. You guys had this debate, "market good, market bad." I'm just not having those debates.

And Santiano once said, "We don't solve problems; we just leave them behind." And I think that's sort of what he's saying. And I think the generational shift and the shift of debate was a key element of the speech today.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: It was not ideological, and it, in a strange way -- not a strange way -- a direct way, a rebuttal of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan said in 1980, ideologically, "Government is not the solution; government is the problem."

And Barack Obama said today, it's not a question of big government or small government. It's a question of the government, does it work? And I think that's a far more pragmatic, less ideological approach.

Symbolism of the day

Ellen Fitzpatrick
University of New Hampshire
I think the day was very rich in history. And the people on the mall came because they were conscious of that and moved by it.

JIM LEHRER: OK, let's move on now. Judy Woodruff has some historical perspective on this very important day.

Judy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: With me, Jim, are Peniel Joseph, professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University; Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of the National Review and author of several biographies of the founding fathers; and Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.

Ellen, let's stick with this idea of looking at the whole day. Where does this day fit into the story of this country? And I come back to the gentleman Gwen interviewed on the mall today who said, "I never thought" -- he said, "I never thought history would turn so quickly."

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: The suddenness of it I think is striking in one sense, and yet one could argue that it took our entire history to get us to the place that we are today, that is, we crossed the threshold of American history today.

This was truly a historic moment in electing and inaugurating our first African-American president. And I think the day was very rich in history. And the people on the mall came because they were conscious of that and moved by it. You could feel it and see it in the crowd.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peniel, how do you see this day?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Brandeis University: Well, in terms of historically, there's very few days that actually transform the aesthetics of our democracy.

The memory that this day invokes the most is probably the march on Washington, August 28, 1963. Forty-five years and five months ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to the Lincoln Memorial with really an expansive vision of American democracy.

In that speech, King talked about the previous 100 years, especially the civil war, slavery. In this speech, the president-elect really -- or the president really elegantly evoked race. He didn't make race the central point of his speech, but he acknowledged the notion of slavery, the notion of Jim Crow segregation, and the notion that his father actually couldn't have been seated at a restaurant 45 years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, Richard, you can't separate race from what happened today.

RICHARD BROOKHISER, National Review: Well, no, you can't, but I was struck today by the kind of pageant of confirmation that this whole day was. And there have been some of those in the American past, where people sort of collectively get together and say, "Yes, we like this. This is good."

Washington's First Inaugural was like that. The government was new. The Constitution was new. The great war hero was coming back to lead it. You know, he went from Mount Vernon to New York. It was like a six-day triumphal progress. And then the numbers were much smaller, but in terms of percentage of population, it was maybe equal or even greater to the turnout we had today.

But it was just like a collective embracing of the moment and saying, "We're happy to be here." And I got a feeling of that watching this day as it unfolded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ellen, what about the speech? We've heard some comment about it already. How does it compare? You've studied other inaugural addresses.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I think it's actually -- I dissent a little bit, I think, from the sentiment that's shaping up and to say that I think it was an extraordinarily powerful speech.

And the pageantry and that element that Richard just mentioned was surely there, but embedded in it was a critique that we have strayed far from our founding. He asked us to choose our better history, and it was an unvarnished view of American history that he offered.

There was that phrase, "We have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, but we've triumphed over these tragedies and the hatred of our past."

And so, in that sense, he was seizing the historic occasion of his inauguration and using it as a way to call Americans back to their origins. And there was a critique here of where we've been.

He said, "We don't have to choose between our safety and our ideals." That, to me, was a reference to the abrogation, or so he would argue, I would say, from those ideals through the war on terror. So it was a very powerful cry to remake America by drawing on our fundamental historical values.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peniel, where do you put this speech, in the sweep of inaugural events?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, three speeches come to mind. One, FDR's first inauguration in 1933, where he really had an expansive critique of capitalism sort of run amok.

In 1941, FDR has a speech where he talks about democracy and uses the word democracy about two dozen times in his inaugural address and basically makes the argument that democracy will not die because the spirit and faith of American people won't let it die.

And the final one is John F. Kennedy, Kennedy's speech about a new generation of Americans and a new generation taking the leadership. Obama's speech really evokes all of that, but the twist is really the iconography.

I think one of the reasons why some of the commentators are saying that the speech was only good and not great is because the pageantry, like Richard talked about and Ellen talked about, is really overwhelming all of us.

But when you really read the speech -- and I'm not sure this crowd got the substantive nature of this speech -- the speech substantively matches the overwhelming symbolism of the day.

Addressing the enemy

Richard Brookhiser
National Review
[T]he killers are out there. They're still after us. Now there's a new commander-in-chief who will have to deal with them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we're talking here about history, Richard. But this is a different time, and this was a speech geared to this moment, wasn't it?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, it was, but, you know, history always gives people surprises. Now, eight years ago, George W. Bush was coming in, and he did not imagine he was going to be fighting two wars. I mean, no one would have.

And there was a foreign policy component of this speech. He did mention that. He made the points that you touched on. He also addressed our enemies and said, "We will defeat you."

But, you know, the enemies will have the freedom of action, also. And they will try and pick and choose their battles. And now all those phone calls are coming to our new president, many of which we will never hear about, but, you know, the killers are out there. They're still after us. Now there's a new commander-in-chief who will have to deal with them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen, as you think about today, what's left to be said about this speech, about this day? What is it that Barack Obama -- what blank has left to be filled in at the beginning of this administration?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, I think in some ways that it was somber in the way these speeches tend to be. I think that, in a sense, as an African-American, he writes in his biography about remaking himself, by going back to the well of the past, that he's called America back to the well of its own past.

And I think in evoking segregation, the civil war and the tragedies of America's racial history, in a sense, as an African-American, he is singularly well-placed to be mindful that history is full of tragedy. He'll be the least surprised, I suspect, of any president about the tragedies that may unfold under his watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Peniel?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I agree. I concur. I think that this speech really links the notion of race in a democracy in an expansive way.

Historically, race has been a paradoxical part of American democracy. In this speech, we crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, as a nation, not turning the page on racism, but turning the page on really a tragic racial past. And it makes an argument that race actually is a strength of the democracy, rather than a weakness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we have a better sense of his presidency, Richard, after listening to him?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, I think he's outlined potentially a very ambitious presidency. I think he's teed up a lot of golf balls here, and, you know, now he'll swing away at them.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: He's supposed to be a pretty good golfer, too, as presidential golfers go.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Too sports, wow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So maybe we did get a sense of the Obama presidency?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, you know, we have a sense of where he would like to go, and now the work begins. And it was a very, I think, kind of an ambitious, if open-ended sort of a vision, but, you know, now there's -- now the follow-up will come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's exactly what he said, the work begins. Richard Brookhiser, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Peniel Joseph, thank you.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim?

Responsibility theme

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the country awaits it, wants it, to be treated as citizens, to be called and summoned as citizens, not just treated as consumers or investors or taxpayers.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, thank you, Judy.

And now back to Mark and David. Mark, now the work begins. And you talk -- everybody talked in that speech earlier about the president said a new era of responsibility, and that went to everybody, not just to members of his government or whatever, everybody in America he wants involved in this new era of responsibility.

Did that ring true to you? Did that ring possible to you?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it does, Jim. I think the country awaits it, wants it, to be treated as citizens, to be called and summoned as citizens, not just treated as consumers or investors or taxpayers, that citizenship, as he was pretty specific, does involve our responsibility to our country, to the world, and to each other.

So I think -- you know, I think that's -- I mean, what was -- we're waiting is not call the action, but where do we march? And I think that's where the specifics are. I mean, he did tee up, in Richard's term, a lot of balls and a big agenda, and which is he going to act on?

JIM LEHRER: David, Ellen made the point that he called Americans back to its own past, to our own past, and the responsibility theme in there. When you look back and where we are today, when you compare them in terms of how we as average Americans and all kinds of other Americans see our responsibility, where do you see the good times in the past and what do you think this man needs to do to get us going?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are two obvious things that leap to mind. The first is, in the past -- and Mark has talked about this a lot -- when we fought wars, we all partook in the fighting of them. And the second is, we didn't spend money we were unwilling to pay for on programs that we're unwilling to actually fund.

And in the Obama administration, I suspect we'll have more conflict, and he will at some point have to ask us for some sacrifice on that, but he will certainly have to ask us for sacrifice on making the government sustainable and making it governable.

We will have deficits approaching $2 trillion in a couple of years, and he's been very clear about this. He's going to attack all those fundamental problems: health care costs, Medicare, Social Security, all that.

And that's when the sacrifice will come in, and that's when he'll have to ask us for either higher taxes or reduced benefits and actually make some sacrifice for the country. And he hasn't done it yet, but he's sort of leaning in that direction, and clearly that day is going to come. And that will be a return to a time when we just didn't spend money that we don't have.

JIM LEHRER: Does Barack Obama go into this with a special lift because of his ability to do what he did today and what he's done, why he got elected by enunciating in an articulate way what he wants to do and what he believes? Has he got wind behind his sails that are unique?

MARK SHIELDS: He does. He has wind at his back because of the special gifts he has, also because of the circumstances. Americans now believe in government more than they did.

I mean, he is the product -- he stood there today -- of two men who went absolutely unmentioned this entire week, this entire political year, Lyndon Johnson, who was a Southern politician, whose skills and leadership were responsible for ending the discrimination that he spoke about -- that his father would have been prevented from eating at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. -- and who enfranchised millions of African-Americans and gave them the vote.

And Harry Truman, who exposed most of the people of my generation and younger to the other race for the first time by desegregating the military. The first time most of us slept in the same quarters with African-Americans or took orders from them was in the United States military, because Harry Truman, as president of the United States, said that's unacceptable.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you believe that Barack Obama has a special wind behind him that most presidents don't have when they start something as difficult as he is at this point?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he's got majorities in both houses. He's got huge popular support. He's got a country that wants to believe again.

What strikes me is that he doesn't quite know where he wants to go. Reaganism, there was a governing philosophy. Obamaism so far is a way of making decisions, which emphasizes unity, conversation, expertise, and knowledge.

How those decisions will manifest themselves as he actually begins to make those decisions is still a little fuzzy, I think.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you both very much for earlier today and tonight.