George Graham

Looking for Words That Will Live in President Obama’s Speech

The TV pundits have been mulling over President Obama’s inauguration address, speculating on which words might live on, like FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” and JFK”s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” And they seem disappointed. Apparently, no single phrase from President Obama’s speech ignited their imaginations.

new dealNot that the speech itself was disappointing. It was a grand speech, eloquent and authentic, inspiring and evocative. Taken as a whole it was just what the doctor ordered for an ailing nation and a disheartened world. I found many passages resonant and insightful. They might not be repeated by succeeding generations but they should at least be remembered by our own.

Examples include:

– Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met.

– On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

– The time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

– Our journey has …. not been …. for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

These rhetorical passages deserve to live not only for the music in their words but also for theĀ  commitments they reveal. To me, they signal a new dawn in the American power structure, an era in which honesty, bipartisan team work, straight talk and grown-up policies will replace self-serving party politics, Wall Street flim-flammery and public relations “spin.” In other words, America’s leaders will treat the public like mature adults for a change.

But some less poetic passages also resonated with me – this simply phrased laundry list, for example:

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

There’s a lot of promise in those few lines. Think about the phrase “restore science to its rightful place,” for instance, and contrast it with the nonsense we’ve been fed over the past eight years about the “evils” of stem cell research and family planning clinics. And contrast the promise to develop clean energy with the past administration’s servile relationship to the powerful purveyors of oil and coal.

Yet more heartening to me than all of those encouraging signals was this prosaic passage:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.

Common sense at last! No more ideological dogma, no more talk about “isms” and “the free-market doctrine.” Just “what works.” In that simple promise I find the most hope that America might pull itself out of this tailspin and soar among the stars once more. That is, of course, if the American public is, as the new President believes, made up mostly of mature adults.

Photo shows Time Magazine’s cover depicting Obama as Franklin Roosevelt.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for