“At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.”
So said Abraham Lincoln as he began his second inaugural address in 1865. And then he gave one of the greatest presidential orations ever, pledging, “with malice towards none, with charity towards all … to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
This speech remains the great exception to the rule that presidents’ first addresses are better remembered than their second inaugurals. From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” to John F. Kennedy’s challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” the most famous presidential pronouncements are associated with the speeches that they delivered when first taking office.
In contrast, while FDR is remembered for having seen “one third-of-a-nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” few recall that he said this during his second inaugural speech in 1937. Meanwhile, many eloquent statements from second inaugurals, such as Woodrow Wilson’s statement that “We are provincials no more, but no less American,” are forgotten along with the speeches themselves.
While crafting any inaugural address is difficult, drafting a second inaugural is even more daunting. Traditionally, inaugurals are prose poems, seeking to reunify the American people after divisive election campaigns, situate current challenges in the sweep of the nation’s history, and rally the nation to tackle the tasks at hand. But second inaugural addresses are almost always more prosaic because the president has presented his vision for the future many times before while striving to achieve his agenda for the past four years.
When President Obama delivers his second inaugural address on Monday, he’ll strive to clear two very different historic hurdles. As a second-term president at a time of intense partisanship, he’ll have a harder time than four years ago at appealing to Americans’ yearning for hope and change.
But he’ll also strive to exceed the expectations that have been raised by history itself. He’ll be speaking on the national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and during a year that marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
With his rhetoric usually rising to any occasion, President Obama can be expected to break the second-inaugural jinx, learning these lessons from his predecessors who were fortunate to take the oath of office twice.
Principles, not programs: President Obama begins his second term with an ambitious agenda: continuing the economic recovery, curbing gun violence, promoting immigration reform, addressing climate change. But, as with his most successful predecessors, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, he will use his inaugural address to present the principles behind his programs. The time to talk policy will come soon enough, when he delivers his State of the Union Address on Feb. 12.
Define a national journey: With his second inaugural marking the midpoint of his presidency, President Obama will describe the progress that the nation is making from the economic crisis and foreign wars that he inherited to a better future that he will describe. He should use the word “we” much more than “I” and speak without triumphalism to Americans who are still anxious about their jobs and paychecks, their own retirements and their children’s prospects. The second inaugural addresses by FDR and Reagan each offer models for presidents leading recoveries.
Find a historic analogy: Few morale-boosters are more powerful than “We did it before, and we’ll do it again.” Implicitly or explicitly, successful presidents have reminded Americans of earlier eras when they overcame comparable challenges. For President Obama, there may be analogies in the struggle to save the union during the civil war, the adaptation to economic and social change during the progressive era, the recovery from the Great Depression during the 1930’s, and the provision for postwar prosperity and world leadership after 1945.
Appeal for national unity: In the midst of polarized, even poisonous politics, President Obama should renew the appeal for national unity that defined his first appearance on the national stage when he keynoted the Democratic National Convention in 2004, declaring, “There is no red America, there is no blue America, there is only the United States of America.” Since then, his speeches have included similar calls for “a new era of responsibility” and an assumption of the responsibilities of “citizenship” – themes that he should revisit on Monday.
Invoke Ike: From Reagan recalling FDR to Obama invoking Theodore Roosevelt during his 2012 campaign, presidents have sought to unite the nation by praising presidents from the opposing party. In his second inaugural, President Obama, who often refers to his family’s roots in Kansas, would do well to invoke Dwight D. Eisenhower, identifying him with an era of bipartisan harmony, responsible internationalism, and hardheaded investments in transportation and education.
In his eloquent but unremembered second inaugural address in 1957, Eisenhower appealed to Americans to align themselves with “the winds of change.” Maybe just maybe, President Obama might silence some of his critics by identifying his own ideas with the Middle American who led the nation down the middle of the road at the middle of the last century.
David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 to 1994. He is a principal and senior writer at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public relations firm.