That is because true "renewal of hope" inaugurals can only occur when they succeed outgoing failed presidencies, and there have been six of them in the past century. Barack Obama's will be the first "renewal of hope" of the 21st century.
Republicans Warren G. Harding in 1921, Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 and Ronald Reagan in 1981 presided over such inaugurals when they succeeded discredited outgoing Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Harry S. Truman and Jimmy Carter. Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Jimmy Carter in 1977 enjoyed such inaugurals memorably when they succeeded Herbert Hoover, Eisenhower and Gerald Ford.
The reasons those outgoing presidents either failed, were discredited or were generally seen as burned out at the time were often forgotten or distorted by later popular memory and even by historians.
Liberal historians tend to revere Woodrow Wilson for all the legislation strengthening the federal government he pushed through. But when he left office, Wilson was reviled for propelling the United States into World War I, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, his failed quasi-messianic dreams for the League of Nations, re-segregating the federal government, race riots that were exploding across America's major cities, the collapse of national civil rights in the red-hunting hysteria of his attorney general and, most of all, for presiding over a severe economic recession. His successor, the now widely forgotten or despised Warren G. Harding, cleaned up every one of those problems within a few months of taking office.
Hoover deserves all the obloquy he received -- and more -- for his catastrophic policies that guaranteed the depth and length of the unprecedented Great Depression. He was so hapless that he accepted as his 1932 campaign song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
Franklin Roosevelt, by contrast, swept to victory with the tune "Happy Days Are Here Again."
Truman, even more than Wilson, is now loved by historians for desegregating the U.S. armed forces, recognizing the state of Israel, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and standing up to communist aggression in Germany, Greece, Iran and South Korea. He also presided over the start of the greatest era of widespread prosperity in American and, indeed, world history.
But Truman left office in 1953 with a dismal 19 percent approval rating, with the U.S. armed forces bogged down in an apparently unending and unwinnable war in Korea and with international communism apparently unstoppable after it had swallowed China.
Eisenhower, like Truman, had an extremely impressive record but left office widely regarded as burned out. Although he sent the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock, Ark., to ensure the implementation of the Supreme Court's decision ordering the desegregation of all American schools, he was widely seen as too reluctant and cautious on civil rights. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev internationally humiliated him over the shooting down of a U.S. U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. The inaugural of John F. Kennedy, with the new president's shining rhetoric about the torch being passed to a new generation of Americans, was widely seen as the beginning of an era of new hope.
Richard Nixon lacked any of that kind of charisma when he succeeded the assassinated Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, in 1969. Eight years later, however, hopes were bright for Jimmy Carter when he succeeded Nixon's discredited successor, Gerald Ford, in 1977. The fact that Carter was elected in 1976, the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence, added to the bright "renewal" aspects of his inaugural.
But by 1980 those bright hopes had turned into nightmares of hyperinflation and national humiliation over the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis while the Soviet Union expanded its power in Africa, the Middle East and Asia like an apparently unstoppable juggernaut. Reagan took office proclaiming it was "morning in America." And like Harding, FDR and Eisenhower before him, he really delivered.
Having a hugely popular and joyous "inaugural of hope," of course, is no guarantee that the administration being welcomed into power will prove truly successful, but more often than not they do.
That was certainly the case with Presidents Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagan. Kennedy was murdered before he could achieve any real progress on civil rights or Medicare, but he had publicly stood up to the Soviets in Berlin and Cuba and was widely admired, even loved, at the time of his death.
Eisenhower curiously left office revered and admired across Europe by the nations he had first liberated from Nazi Germany as supreme Allied commander in World War II and then protected against the Soviet Union as founding commander in chief of NATO and then president of the United States. His achievements were vastly underrated by the American public, pundits and historians at the time, however, and his historical rehabilitation only began when his opposition to getting involved in the Vietnam War was documented by historian David Halberstam.
Outgoing President George W. Bush took office after the most disputed U.S. presidential election since 1876 and only squeaked in by a Supreme Court decision halting the recount of votes in the state of Florida. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, was elected with only a plurality of votes in an election in which far more votes were given to his two chief opponents combined -- defeated President George Herbert Walker Bush and third party candidate Ross Perot.
President Obama, by contrast, will take office with the largest popular majority in 20 years and with the first clear popular majority for any Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
He also will take office promising to withdraw U.S. forces from an unpopular war in Iraq, as Eisenhower pledged to end the conflict in Korea. And he will face the worst financial and economic crisis to confront any incoming president since Franklin Roosevelt inherited the full force of the Great Depression from Hoover in 1933.
Like Kennedy, Obama is far younger and more photogenic than his burned-out predecessor. Like Harding, he also will have to restore confidence in a widely discredited Department of Justice. And like Reagan, he will have to come up with a new policy toward a hostile Iran where his predecessor was widely perceived as having failed.
Good luck, President Obama. You'll need it.
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