Thomas Sowell

If making speeches is one of the tests of a President of the United States, then Barack Obama has passed his first test with flying colors. He has understood the varied constituencies, and the various hopes and fears he had to address. He said the kinds of things that all these constituencies wanted to hear.

As a speech, it was the best inaugural address since Ronald Reagan. This is not to judge the substantive merits or demerits of what he said. Anyone who judges any political speech by its substance-- much less by what actions follow-- is likely to be disappointed.

However, a political speech is more than just a theatrical performance of the moment. The ability to make a speech that connects with a wide range of people can be a political power in itself.

That power enabled Ronald Reagan to put through legislation that created "the Reagan revolution," even though his party never controlled both houses of Congress while he was in the White House.

Nobody wanted the Gipper to go on the air and say that he was one of those in Congress who was obstructing the President's program. In addition to the powers that automatically come with the office, the President has what Theodore Roosevelt called the "bully pulpit" from which to shape public opinion.

That bully pulpit was nowhere used more powerfully than by TR's cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the famous "first hundred days" of FDR's administration, so much far-reaching legislation was rushed through Congress that it is doubtful if most Congressmen ever read it all, much less had time to think about it.

President Obama now has that bully pulpit and has shown that he has the rhetorical skills to use it, whether for good or ill. The unprecedented throngs that filled the vast reaches of the Washington Mall and lined the parade route from the capitol to the White House shows that he has the people behind him as he assumes office.

Secret service agents may have been concerned (or appalled) when the Obamas got out of their limousine and started walking in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. But anyone who might have tried to harm them would probably have been torn limb from limb by the crowd before anyone could have gotten there to arrest him.

It was an auspicious beginning. But presidencies are not measured by their beginnings. A long list could be made of Presidents who came to the White House with high hopes and left with bitter disappointments.

Inevitably, much is being made of the fact that Barack Obama is the first black President of the United States.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate