Sixteen presidents before Barack Obama got a second chance at giving an inaugural address for the ages. Most didn’t make much of it.
George Washington’s remarks the second time around were admirably succinct — only 135 words — but hardly qualify as an address.
Thomas Jefferson, who laid out a masterful brief on democracy at his first oath-taking, spent much of his second complaining that the press was telling lies about him. Ulysses S. Grant also began his second term by grousing that he’d been slandered, although it’s unlikely those who had heard his first inaugural were expecting much better.
Abraham Lincoln is the grand exception.
Just matching his first offering, with its lyric appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” would have been a feat. On his second try, Lincoln brought forth the most-acclaimed inaugural address ever, one of the great American speeches. Four years of civil war at last coming to a close, he summoned his countrymen to bind up the nation’s wounds, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Such poetic lightning is unlikely to strike again.
Indeed, expectations for inaugural eloquence are low these days, giving Obama some breathing room as he prepares for Monday.
“Most inaugural addresses are just pedestrian,” said Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of politics and rhetoric at Baylor University. Their function is ceremonial; they lack emotion and urgency.
After reading all 56 inaugural addresses to date, presidential historian Charles O. Jones found: “A lot of them, frankly, are highly forgettable.”
And second inaugurals? Even worse.
“Reality has set in,” Medhurst said. “You don’t have these grand visions for change you had when you were first coming into office.”
Lincoln’s brilliance aside, the phrasings that gleam brightest in American memory came from newly minted presidents: Franklin Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
After four years of familiarity in the White House, does Obama stand any chance of speaking inaugural words that will long endure?
There are a couple of factors in his favor.
His gifts as an orator, for one. Obama is renowned for his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote, his Philadelphia meditation on race, his victory speeches in the 2008 primaries, his Nobel Prize acceptance.
Nonetheless, his first inaugural address seemed overwhelmed by the historic impact of the moment — an event that drew nearly 2 million people to the National Mall and seemed to transcend political ideology. Perhaps the speech’s most powerful line was Obama’s noting that “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served in a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
“The only thing anyone remembers about that one is that the first African-American president was inaugurated,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The soaring rhetoric so many Americans expect from Obama was missing that day. Jamieson said the speech lacked what an inaugural address needs to make history’s short list: a clearly communicated, overarching theme and a memorable line that encapsulates it.
His “new era of responsibility” didn’t grab the popular imagination.
Medhurst says that speech, though little remembered, was actually better than most inaugural efforts because it worked as a unified whole to lay out Obama’s vision. Yet he doesn’t have high hopes for Jan. 21.
“If his second inaugural ends up being a speech he’s remembered for I will be astounded, because that just almost never happens,” Medhurst said.
Lowered expectations and muted excitement may ease the pressure on the president and his speechwriters this time around.
Another break for them, ironically: Four years after the first swearing-in, the United States is still mired in serious troubles that need talking about.
Bad times make better speeches, said Jones, because they give a returning president something to say beyond “here I am, I got re-elected, let’s push on.”
He points to FDR’s second inaugural during the Great Depression (“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished”) and Woodrow Wilson’s address preparing Americans to enter World War I (“There can be no turning back”).
Today’s worries — anxiety about joblessness, a sense of political disarray, fear that the nation is in chronic decline — are less dire than what Roosevelt and Wilson faced. Yet they could create a backdrop for resolve and yes-we-can inspiration.
“This is a moment in which the country is looking to the president to assure us that we remain a great nation, that our future is going to be better than our past, and here are the principles that will enable us to do this,” Jamieson said.
“You have the pieces on the table to deliver a great speech,” she said. “The question is will he do it?”
And if Obama does, the next question becomes: Can he live up to it? A great inaugural address is also measured by how well its promise is fulfilled.
No matter how eloquent the wording, there was no chance history would remember Richard Nixon for his second inaugural pledge: “to make these next four years the best four years in America’s history.”
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