Clare Boothe Luce, a former Republican member of Congress, once advised President John F. Kennedy that every great man is a sentence. Abraham Lincoln saved the Union. Franklin Roosevelt brought the nation out of the Great Depression.
“History has no time for more than one sentence,” she said, according to a Time magazine account, “and it is always a sentence that has an active verb.”
As President Barack Obama prepares for his second inaugural address this morning in Washington, he still is a president in search of a sentence. His aides will point to the passage of Obama-care, bringing the country out of a financial crisis, or ending the war in Iraq.
Yet for a man who came to power with such promise four years ago, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize nine months into his term for what he might do, those accomplishments don’t seem grand enough.
To be sure, he is governing in an era of acute polarization, and that complicates his task. When Roosevelt won passage of Social Security, he had well more than 200 surplus Democratic votes in Congress. When Lyndon Johnson delivered on Medicare, he had more than 130 Democratic votes. Big change usually one comes when a president has big margins.
But great leaders are supposed to overcome impediments, largely through their powers of persuasion. So this morning’s address represents another opportunity for Obama, who as a young high school student wrote of the extraordinary power of words.
Words in many respects got him to this place. His speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, with its appeal for a unity, sameness and oneness, launched his path to the presidency. His campaign in 2008, with its airy slogan of hope and change, only stoked the notion that he would be a transformative leader.
Four years ago, in the frigid cold, 1.8 million people flooded the National Mall, the crowd stretching from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a happy, festive occasion, and hope was indeed in the air. That quickly gave way to battles between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who couldn’t even agree to disagree, and the president did not prove to be a healer.
Today, the streets were less jammed, the crowds cut in half and the expectations lower. But second terms and second inaugural addresses are also about second chances and new beginnings.
Will Barack Obama finally deliver that sentence?