By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – One speech said hello.
The other said goodbye – sort of.
As I watched new Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s inaugural address and outgoing President Barack Obama’s farewell address, I was struck by their similarities.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
Even though the governor and the president are very different who belong to different parties – Holcomb’s a Republican and Obama’s a Democrat – they approached their big moments in much the same way.
They started by varying the venue.
Most gubernatorial inaugurations take place at the Statehouse, where they’re often outdoors. Holcomb and his team, perhaps mindful of the frigid experience that was Gov. Mike Pence’s first day in office four years, opted to move the event to the Pepsi Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds.
It was the right call. Most people who attended Pence’s swearing in on the west steps of the Statehouse couldn’t wait for him to get through his speech because they just wanted to get inside and get out of the biting cold.
Moving the speech indoors in spacious accommodations meant the people in attendance could devote their full attention to what Holcomb said – and not be diverted by the task of attempting to restore feeling to their fingers and toes.
Obama, too, shifted the locale.
Traditionally, a president’s farewell address is a short talk delivered from the Oval Office. Obama opted to take to the road and deliver his 50-minute speech in front of a huge and raucous crowd at McCormick Place in his adopted hometown of Chicago.
This, too, was a fortunate choice, because speaking before a crowd helped drive home the president’s primary theme – that self-government requires the active and enthusiastic participation of citizens. It’s a do-it-yourself project.
Both speeches shared a common tone, one that was frankly celebratory – and, for that matter, was an implied rebuke to President-elect Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
Holcomb and Obama both said, in effect, that, even though much work remains to be done, America and Indiana already are great.
Holcomb’s speech had a refreshingly muted quality, one that signaled a matter-of-fact approach to governing. While he parceled out the obligatory dollops of praise to his immediate predecessors – fellow Republicans Mitch Daniels and Pence – and paid the customary tribute to Indiana’s frontier history, he pivoted quickly to work at hand.
Speaking to a state that has been torn apart in recent years by battles over divisive social issues, Holcomb cited examples from all walks of Hoosier life as models of the pioneer spirit. Perhaps most telling was his touting of the late Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, an ordained minister and moderate Republican who was a loud and persistent critic of the state GOP’s infatuation with and indulgence of the religious right.
From there, the new governor plunged into what may be the biggest challenge confronting Indiana – and everywhere else, for that matter – in the coming years: the search for skilled labor. The numbers show that there will be a severe worldwide labor shortage by 2030. The places that are welcoming to good workers will prosper. Those that aren’t, won’t.
By juxtaposing Hudnut’s story with the coming economic challenges, Holcomb sent a powerful signal.
Indiana no longer has the time or luxury to engage in foolish fights over symbolic social issues.
Obama’s speech also delivered some messages.
He reminded Democrats who remain upset – okay, furious – about Trump’s election that supporting the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to another was the duty of every citizen in a democratic society.
That said, he stopped well short of pledging support to the new president. If anything, Obama suggested that he was eager to play the role of being Trump’s primary adversary until the Democratic Party has a new leader.
He encouraged people to stay active and – in another rebuke to Trump – said democracy fails when citizens surrender to fear, anger and cynicism.
The heart of his speech, though, was about the complexity of the world and the need for a mature understanding of citizenship if we are to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Holcomb and Obama both sounded like adults, men who have a grown-up understanding of an often harsh but beautiful world.
One said hello while the other said goodbye.
But they both did it with grace.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.