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.”