Obama speech: Can hope trump deflation?

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Hope floats – in the economy just as in Hollywood or sports.

It's often overlooked as a powerful lever for a foundering nation, maybe because it's so difficult to measure. Commentators often refer to investor optimism or consumer confidence – and these days both are in short supply – as key engines for the economy.

But it is hard for money men and women to figure out how to engender hope when the numbers are so gloomy.

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That job falls, instead, to politicians – especially presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama – who must rally people and create palpable hope for a better future.

Did President Obama accomplish that with Tuesday's inaugural speech? He ticked off America's wartime and economic challenges. He talked about the "sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable."

Then, in a startingly sober speech, he tried to rally his listeners: "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. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

The stock market wasn't impressed, with the Dow losing 332.13 points on Tuesday.

But key presidential phrases sometimes take time to emerge.

When Roosevelt delivered his first inauguration speech, journalists made little of what would become its most famous line: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." The phrase got stuck on inside pages (including by the Monitor, although it did rate a mention in an editorial).

But the administration knew it had a winner when Americans started writing in, mentioning the phrase.

And 1933 proved to be the bottom of the Great Depression from which America slowly began to emerge.

Was it hope that changed the equation? Hope was plentiful on Day One of the Obama administration, but as the new president himself said, there is work to be done:

"In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship ... 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."

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