Sean O'Grady: A speech with echoes of Lincoln and Nixon

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The Independent Online

It seems a strange thing to say about such a fresh figure, but the President-elect's victory speech was vintage Obama. On one level it was an entirely predictable mix of patriotism, populism and schmaltz: "all things are possible", "summon a new spirit", "the American dream", that sort of thing. The remarks about the girls' puppy coming to the White House were the cheesiest in over 50 years. They inevitably reminded one of Richard Nixon's notorious "Chequers speech", in which he pledged, in answers to allegations of corruption as early as 1952, that his two daughters would keep a cocker spaniel puppy called Chequers that they had been given. Some of the soundbites and phrases sounded just a little like they had travelled directly from focus groups of swing voters. As always, Obama's efforts were classy and confident; he marries the folksy and the statesmanlike in a way we haven't really seen since the Clinton era – but he did not say anything surprising.

Yet while much of Obama's address was more or less an echo of the concerns of worried Americans repeated back to them by a man who sought to reassure, other words and phrases reverberated down the years. Most explicit was his graceful obeisance to Abraham Lincoln and government "of the people, for the people, by the people". Others were more slight. When for example Obama told his audience that "we may not get there in one term" but that "I promise you we as a people will get there" there was a hint of Martin Luther King, who declared the day before he was assassinated that "I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land". Obama promised that "I will always be honest with you", the subtlest acknowledgement of the deceptions that came out of the White House over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, just as Jimmy Carter had to promise his people in the post-Watergate period that he would "never tell a lie". A description of America as a "beacon" recalled the many references made by Ronald Reagan and others to the 17th- century pilgrim John Wyntrop's famous description of New England as a "city on a shining hill".

Unlike Republicans, no Democrat gets to the White House unless he is a fine speaker. John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale – all failed partly because they were so uncharismatic on the stump. Obama has proved his worth as a man of words, and they will help him explain and justify his actions. The world awaits them.