Obama’s Inaugural Address: a Transcendental Fist Bump?

Next month, Obama’s inaugural address will be published by Penguin alongside the literary and historical texts that influenced it. Included in the collection will be three of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.”

While primarily a publisher’s gimmick used to fatten up a short work with older texts that can be acquired for free, Penguin should have gotten a little more creative. The Lincoln connection is an easy one. Obama’s borrowed from him in previous speeches, not to mention his entire presidential campaign and transition to the White House was strewn with decidedly unsubtle allusions to Lincoln’s own presidential journey. From last Tuesday’s address, one could also distinguish hints of John F. Kennedy, FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Corinthians, and surely endless more. The inclusion of any of these leader’s speeches or a biblical passage could infuse the edition with more energy.

And while President Obama has probably been influenced by Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the past, his speech only briefly and vaguely echoed of it. “As for our common defense,” Obama states, “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” Personally, I wish he had gone farther in emphasizing the virtues of individual intuition and personal integrity. After all, the economy could probably benefit from a swift booster shot of Emersonian transcendentalism.

Or hopefully, a fist bump?