History weighed heavily on President Obama's shoulders yesterday. This was partly because of his status as the country's first African-American president, the high level of expectation that exists about his presidency, and the sense, to use his own words yesterday, that his inauguration was a "defining moment for this generation".
It was also partly a result of careful cultivation by himself and his strategists to create the impression that the challenge facing him is akin to that which faced his political hero- Abraham Lincoln. Throughout his two-year campaign he invoked Lincoln, even mirroring Lincoln's train ride to Washington by rail before his inauguration in 1861.
In an interview last week, Obama said his goal for the inauguration was to try and capture “the moment we are in”. He referred to JFK's 1961 speech as an “extraordinary job” and Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865, suggesting Lincoln's genius “is not going to be matched”.
Obama's own 10- year-old daughter also reminded him of the historic challenge, he told CNN. When they were at a family outing to the Lincoln Memorial last week she turned to him and said “First African- American president. Better be good”.
It was, because of his continued skill in using words to highlight the importance of both an inspirational past and hope about the future. His inauguration speech carefully echoed the words of both Lincoln and Roosevelt in the expressed desire to “choose our better history” and make the difficult choices necessary to deal with current American crises.
For American presidents to invoke their illustrious predecessors is something of a double- edged sword and can lead to accusations of arrogance. There were some eyebrows raised after Obama's post-election interview on CBS when he referred to Lincoln and his admiration for him because “there is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government”.
To stress Lincoln's humility was one thing; to set the bar so high for his own presidency was another. But in truth, there is much appetite for the kind of rhetoric he used throughout his campaign, culminating in his inaugural speech.
Bob Shrum, a long-time democratic strategist, recently made the point that Obama “loves defining the moment, setting the scene” and a large part of his success has been built on the effectiveness with which he does this.
He did it brilliantly the night of his election victory in Grant Park, Chicago, and again yesterday in Washington, asserting that the same perseverance and idealism that were needed in the past are needed again, but that he is also someone who can marshal them in a new direction.
Some distinguished American historians, including Robert Dallek, biographer of a number of US presidents and James McPherson, author of numerous books on the US Civil War, have acknowledged that no single individual leads alone, or outside of a specific context.
As Lincoln wrote to a friend during the Civil War, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”. But those same historians have also pointed out that a president can alter the mood of a country and make changes that once seemed improbable, citing the decision of Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation and his ability to keep the country united; Roosevelt's success in getting the Americans to embrace social security; and JFK's advance of civil rights.
They have suggested Obama's acute awareness of class and inequalities, the fact that he has already made history by winning the presidency, and his qualities of mind and temperament, leave him poised to make constructive use of the goodwill that exists towards his presidency.
The task he has set himself is to create a new sense of civic patriotism, while emphasising that creating change will take time and optimism. Urgent action is needed but so is patience, seems to be the message.
Is the challenge facing him on a par with Lincoln's during the civil war? Or Roosevelt's at the time of the Great Depression in 1933? Or JFK's in 1961 in the midst of the Cold War? In reality, it is none of the above.
Obama has to create his own history, not imitate someone else's. He may learn from the tactics and words of his successors, but he will not want to be constrained by precedent nor by ideology. He has gone out of his way to appear moderate while at the same time insisting that a new declaration of independence is needed, not just from prejudice, but also from “ideology and small thinking” in order to begin the process of “remaking America”, as he stressed in his speech yesterday.
This is a message he and his team have reiterated for months now. This is bipartisan politics for the 21st century, and while the challenge he articulated yesterday leaned heavily on the unfinished historic task of Americans, his solutions will have to be new and tailored to suit modern America. Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD and currently Burns Scholar at Boston College.