George Washington might have had the right idea. Second inaugural addresses should be short and to the point. Of course, speaking only 135 words as Washington did in 1793 might be a little severe, certainly a lot shorter than anyone expects President Obama to be when he delivers his second inaugural address on Monday.
But the challenge for Obama is no different than that faced by Washington and the 15 other two-term presidents – how to make a second inaugural address sound fresh, meaningful and forward-looking. Almost all of Obama’s predecessors failed at this.
Only Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt made history with their addresses. One stirred a nation riven by civil war; the other inspired a country roiled by deep depression. All but forgotten are the 14 other addresses, their words unable to survive the test of time. Even those presidents famed for their past oratory fell short. A surprisingly bitter Thomas Jefferson could not match his great first inaugural; an unusually wordy Ronald Reagan could not live up to his “Great Communicator” sobriquet; a decidedly humble Bill Clinton could not rise to the occasion.
It is, in many ways, because reelected presidents tote four years of baggage to the podium and lack the freshness and excitement of a first inaugural.
“Lincoln’s stands alone,” said Terry Golway, director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy in New Jersey and co-author of a compendium of inaugural addresses. While most reelected presidents cannot resist the temptation to use their speeches to look back on the past four years, Lincoln had little choice but to look forward. “What would he look back to?”, asked Golway. “The only thing he could look back to was bloodshed. He wanted to put that bloodshed in perspective and say it was for a higher purpose.”
The result was perhaps the second greatest example of American oratory, topped only by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address delivered 17 months earlier. At its start, Lincoln promised little, warning that “little that is new could be presented” in a second inaugural by a leader who had been on the national stage for four years. Speaking only ten weeks after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that ended slavery, Lincoln touched on that institution’s role in the war. But mainly, in a speech that was more theological than political, he spoke about God’s hand in the conflict.
And he concluded with one of the most famous paragraphs in American history, a stunningly magnanimous statement after four years of war: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It took 72 years before another re-elected president said anything memorable. Roosevelt spent the first half of his 1,800-word address boasting of his past efforts to use an aggressive government to revive the economy, stating, “We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.” But he knew the battle was far from over, acknowledging that we have not yet “found our happy valley.”
What followed was a memorable litany of what he saw when he looked out on America. “I see tens of millions of its citizens, a substantial part of its whole population, who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.” He concluded the litany with the speech’s most remembered line: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” He pledged to work for those who are suffering, declaring, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Sadly, that is about it for memorable lines out of the 30,801 words spoken in second inaugurals. All but forgotten to history are Dwight Eisenhower’s “winds of change,” Richard M. Nixon’s “new era of peace,” Ronald Reagan’s “new American emancipation,” and Bill Clinton’s “one common destiny.” Remembered, but only as a cautionary warning against hubristic over-reach, is George W. Bush’s goal of “ending tyranny in our world.”
Perhaps most disappointing was Jefferson in 1805. He had, after all, given one of the all-time best four years earlier when he was the first president to address his remarks to “my fellow citizens” rather than to his colleagues in government. With great moral certainty, he warned then of “political intolerance” and, memorably, declared, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” But when it came time for his second inaugural, the moral certainty was replaced with a weary recitation of what he had already done. And where he had fallen short, he blamed others. On Indian policy, he blamed Indian “ignorance” and “pride.” In other areas, he blamed the press, bitterly stating, “During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been leveled against us...”
Richard Parker, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, thinks there is one little-remembered part of Jefferson’s address with relevance in the politics of today. “He's so proud no American is paying taxes to the federal government, that tariffs and excise taxes are carrying the load. In the Tea Party era I'm surprised they aren't marching around with that stuff on banners,” he told National Journal.
A great inaugural address does not always translate to a great presidency, of course. Ulysses S. Grant delivered a strong and effective address in 1873, including the first-ever ringing demand for the civil rights of former slaves and a pledge to end the divisions left by the Civil War. But he was far less effective in implementing those promises. And, like Jefferson, he could not help but lash out at his press critics. He concluded his speech with what historians Golway and Robert V. Remini, in their history of inaugurals, called “among the bitterest in American history:” “I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely ever equaled in political history.”
Even if most of these speeches did not weather the centuries, they do serve as markers in the maturation of the country. James Madison’s defense of war with Britain, James Monroe’s plea to build a Navy, Andrew Jackson’s defense of the union, Grant’s talk of expansion – all show changes in the views of the role of government.
It is hard to imagine any president today not facing impeachment if he expressed views similar to those in Grover Cleveland’s second inaugural in 1893. He warned of an “exaggerated confidence in our country’s greatness,” saying that led to people expecting too much from government. Lamenting the evils of “paternalism,” he intoned, “While the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people.”
But the role of government -- and the role of the United States in the world – was changing. Only seven years later, William McKinley delivered what was considered the first “modern” inaugural address, warning the country of global “obligations for which we cannot escape.” And Woodrow Wilson in 1917 declared, “We are provincials no longer.”
Both McKinley and Wilson used their address to prepare the country for a new role, just as Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant and Roosevelt did. That is what historians will be looking for in Obama. Will he summon his “fellow citizens” to maintain a status quo or pave a new path? Will he try to unite a divided country or attack his critics?
In 2009, though best known for his eloquence, Obama avoided any rhetorical flourishes in his first speech as president. Aware of the racial history he represented, he let that moment speak for itself and was low key. Four years later, he has a chance to reach for new oratorical heights.
“The key to a second inaugural is to what degree do you reach out to everyone in the nation and say that your goal is to be a figure who is trying to unite,” said David Wrobel, a historian at the University of Oklahoma. Second-term presidents too often are slow to move away from their campaign rhetoric. On Monday, he said, Obama needs to remember that “he won. There is no need to lord it over the opposition.”