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What Barack Obama must accomplish in inaugural speech

WASHINGTON - More than any other incoming president in the past, Barack Obama faces high expectations for the inaugural address he is to deliver Tuesday from the west steps of the U.S. Capitol building.

Not only does he have a reputation as the one of the best political orators of our time, but Obama also must address a nation mired in two wars abroad and an economic meltdown at home.

And Obama's speech must live up to the historic moment he represents. As his 10-year-old daughter Malia put it: "First African-American president. Better be good."

Martin J. Medhurst, a rhetoric and political science professor at Baylor University, said, "People are going to expect an eloquent speech from Obama because he has given so many eloquent speeches. He's got a high bar to clear."

But he cautioned, "The inaugural address is a hard address to do really well. It's easy to do OK. There are a lot of OK inaugural addresses, but there are few moving and memorable inaugural addresses."

Yet Obama must do more than launch soaring rhetoric after being sworn in on Lincoln's Bible at noon. He has work to do.

Every new president tries to use the speech to outline his vision and agenda, and to set the tone for his administration.

In recent weeks, Obama has laid the groundwork for his first speech as president, touching on many themes he has hinted he will include Tuesday.

Here are five things he must achieve in his speech Tuesday:

1. Define the moment

During his campaign, Obama often spoke of the 2008 presidential election as a defining moment in U.S. history.

But he now must take the uncommon step of describing the defining moment of 2009: the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Obama must acknowledge that bleak reality both to demonstrate that he gets what most Americans are going through and to set a baseline against which his efforts to revive the economy can be measured.

Polls show that most Americans say the economy is weak, but Obama still must note the high unemployment, loss in savings and investments, foreclosures and bankruptcies, and the overall uncertainty.

"The economy is priority one, priority two and priority three," said Claremont McKenna College politics professor John Pitney. "He has to convey an understanding of how bad the situation is. Otherwise, people won't pay attention."

2. Give hope (but not too much)

Obama ran for president on a promise of hope, but never in the past two years of campaigning has the need for it been greater than it is right now.

"His most important task is bringing hope to the American public," Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

"He has to really make people more confident about the economy at a time when unemployment is rising and there's a trillion dollar deficit."

Most Americans give Obama high marks so far and say they are willing to support him and to root for his success, according to recent polls.

Obama must reinforce that goodwill across America, and deepen the compact so that he can call on his supporters to back him if Congress balks.

But Obama must also stop short of raising unrealistic expectations that could come back to haunt him.

Obama should give people enough hope to send them to stores to spend money, West said, but also engage them in a way the current president did not: "He should ask people to sacrifice."

3. Reassure the world

Just days before his inauguration, Israel and Hamas called for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, ending three weeks of an Israeli operation it defended as a pursuit of security, but which killed 1,200 Palestinians.

The halt to hostilities could be seen as a gesture to the promise of Obama's new U.S. approach to the world, a promise that drew 200,000 people in Germany to hear him last summer.

The world may seem to smile a bit more on Obama, but he still must fulfill his promises to extricate American troops from Iraq, beef up U.S. forces in Afghanistan and quickly address the crisis in Gaza.

"He'll need to strike a balance in reaching out to the rest of the world, but still make it clear he'll stand strong for America's interests," said director Dan Schnur of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

4. Reach out to the right

A key purpose of the inaugural address has always been to reach out to the losers, in a bid to heal divisions created by a partisan presidential campaign.

While it is a stock part of any inaugural address, Obama must show he means it.

Schnur, who was communications director in 2000 for John McCain, Obama's opponent last year, gives Obama credit for his gestures of bipartisanship since the election.

"What he needs to do in this speech is precisely what he has been doing in the past several weeks," Schnur said.

"Because he's already met with John McCain, because he's already talked with congressional Republicans, because he's already asked (conservative preacher) Rick Warren to give the invocation, he's already taken action that he'll back up with the speech."

He still must say the words.

"For every person who read about his meeting with John McCain, or his visits to Capitol Hill," Schnur said, "there will be untold millions who watch the speech, or excerpts from it."

5. Offer a memorable phrase

Most inaugural speeches are forgettable. Only a few endure, because of a memorable phrase such as John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Obama came to national prominence with his 2004 Democratic convention speech. Now he must make history with his 2009 inaugural speech.

But there's a catch. In his inaugural speech, Kennedy also lofted another memorable phrase: "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."

That foreshadowed U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"Once you're president, you have to make sure that the memorable phrase doesn't make commitments you don't want to make," Pitney said.

"Words," he said, "can get you in trouble."

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