January 28, 2009

President Obama's inauguration address offered a continuing teachable moment for examining key issues facing the nation. A student reading including speech excerpts is followed by questions for discussion and inquiry.

President Obama's inauguration address offered a continuing teachable moment for examination of key issues and early presidential actions. The student reading below provides excerpts from his comments about three crises the nation faces. Discussion questions and a suggestion for inquiry follow.


Student Reading:

President Obama & America's Three Crises

In his inaugural address on January 20, President Barack Obama discussed three crises Americans face and how he planned to lead the nation in facing them. Excerpts from his remarks on each crisis follow:

"That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened.  Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable.  Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met."


  • Name the three crises.
  • What do you know about each one?
  • What are you unsure about?
  • What do you need to learn more about? How might you find out?


"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

"Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

For discussion

1. What do you think President Obama is referring to when he describes the false choice between "our safety and our ideals"? Why does he think this is a false choice?
2. What ideals does he cite? Upon what, besides power, does our security depend? Why?

3. What gives the president reason to believe that "old hatreds shall someday pass"?

4. What makes him believe "that Americans must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace"? What do you think he envisions as America's role? Why? Why do you suppose that he refers specifically in this context to the Muslim world?


"The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."

For discussion

1. Why does our economy require action "to create new jobs" and "to lay a new foundation for growth"? If you don't know, how might you find out?

2. Why does the president see a need to "restore science to its rightful place"? What action or non-action by President Bush might he be referring to? If you don't know, how might you find out?

3. Why do you think the president wants to "transform our schools and colleges and universities"? If you don't know, how might you find out?


"Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends-honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism-these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility: a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and promise of citizenship.

"So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled.  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.'"

For discussion

1. What are the "truths" to which we need to return?

2. What is "the price and promise of citizenship"?

3. Why do you suppose that George Washington ordered the words quoted to "be read to the people"? Why do you suppose that President Obama ended his inaugural address by reminding Americans of those words?

For inquiry

During his first days in office, President Obama signed executive orders reversing some of President Bush's "war on terror" policies and announced legislative proposals aimed at improving the economy and rebuilding confidence.

Assign small groups of students to frame questions about these presidential initiatives, inquire into them, take notes on their substance and any questions they raise, and report back to the class on them.

Sample "war on terror" questions:

1. What action has the president taken on Guantanamo? What questions do you have about this detention center and the 250 prisoners there?

2. What problems are there in bringing any of them to trial?

3. What is the president's position on interrogation of terror suspects? What questions do you have about his policy on this subject?

Sample economic crisis questions:

1. The president said nothing in his address about the severe and worsening crisis in America's financial system. What actions does he now propose or is taking? Why?

2. What is the congressional response to Obama's economic stimulus program? What criticisms of it are there? Why?

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: