Barack Obama began his presidency on January 20, 2009, with a rallying cry that speaks even more powerfully and poignantly as he concludes his presidency on January 20, 2017.
The president, who had swept to power with a landslide victory, did not speak eight years ago of what he might do. He spoke, in the face of economic uncertainty the likes of which America had not experienced since the Great Depression, of what the people might do:
So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. 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 the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to 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 [and replulse it].”
America: In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
There was an optimism in Obama’s message, an optimism that extended from his own campaign promise of “hope and change.” But it had deeper roots. In his first formal message to the nation he would lead through a period of remarkable technological and human progress, Obama took inspiration from the most visionary of this country’s founding generation: Thomas Paine.
The words Washington ordered read to troops encamped along the Delaware River in December 1776 came from the first of Paine’s pamphlets on “The American Crisis.” Paine began that pamphlet by acknowledging a dire circumstance: “THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country…”