Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Unlikely Lineage

By Shawn Healy
In taking the oath of office this afternoon, Barack Hussein Obama, became our 44th, and perhaps most unlikely, U.S. President. His speech that followed was somber, yet soaring. It provided hope to the estimated 2 million people gathered on the steps of the Capitol and the National Mall, and the 3/4 of Americans who watched it live on television, yet prepared us for the daunting challenges that lie ahead. In the process, he invoked the language and spirit of the 42 men who served as Commander-in-Chief before him.

He thanked President George W. Bush for his eight years of service to the nation, and also for his generous cooperation during the recent transition period. President Bill Clinton was seated behind the podium, and one can't help but recall the similar promise of change he brought 16 years ago when our nation faced similar economic calamity.

Conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan seems like an unlikely comparison, but he too entered office at a time of great self-doubt for the nation. Through his eloquent confidence in the greatness of America, he foresaw and delivered better days ahead. It was a sunny yet chilly day like this one in 1980 when Reagan envisioned "morning in America."

President Obama is at heart an idealist, and is often compared to President John F. Kennedy for his youth, intellect, and ability to inspire a new generation of leadership to take the reins. Kennedy asked Americans to consider what they could do for their country, and Obama championed the American soldier, for "we honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all."

We are in the midst of the greatest economic downtown since the Depression, and Obama invoked the optimism and resolve of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who told us the "only thing to fear is fear itself." In echoing FDR's call for "bold, persistent experimentation," Obama brushed aside those "...who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."

Perhaps a second New Deal is in the making.

Obama tethered his campaign to his Prairie State predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. He kicked it off on the footsteps of the Old Statehouse in Springfield where Lincoln delivered the "House Divided" speech, build his Cabinet in the mold of Lincoln's "team of rivals," even replicated the 16th President's journey by train to the nation's capital. It was on Lincoln's Bible that Obama took the oath of office, and although Obama does not face the perils of Civil War, his challenges are nonetheless daunting, and he is right to draw upon the uncommon wisdom of a relatively inexperienced politician and lawyer who like himself adopted the State of Illinois as home.

Obama referred repeatedly to our nation's founding documents crafted by the likes of Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Washington. When our very existence as a nation is threatened, Obama contended, "...America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents."

At the close of his speech, Obama paid homage to the Father of Our Country, George Washington. "In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

'Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).'"

Ultimately, Obama's place in history as the first African-American president is secure, but one cannot ignore the struggles of previous generations to make today's ascension a possibility. Although he did not invoke the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., directly, Obama did use language that mirrored the "I Have a Dream" speech uttered on the opposite end of the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

On this day, the son of an Kenyan goat herder, of mixed racial heritage, with a Muslim middle name, and of modest means became the leader of the free world. Regardless of where we stood on Election Day two and a half months ago, our nation is better for the peaceful and historic transfer of power that occurred at noon on January 20, 2009.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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