Obama's inaugural address: What he can do to have a hit and not a dud

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

By Walter Shapiro

In classical times when Cicero finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes finished speaking, the people said, “Let us march."—Adlai Stevenson praising John Kennedy in 1961

As an orator, Barack Obama has always been a modern-day Cicero. His eloquence seems disconnected from a call to action.

Obama’s greatest speeches as president (from his 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo to his tear-stained words just a month ago in Newtown) have been outside the hurly-burly of political combat. In contrast, it is a challenge to recall a word that Obama said during the bitter struggle to pass health-care reform.

Monday’s second inaugural offers Obama a chance to find his inner Demosthenes. After a reelection campaign that had all the poetry of a hog-calling competition, Obama needs to reveal to the American people what vision will animate his second term. It is no longer sufficient for the president to resort to such poll-tested bromides as a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction.

No scheduled event in American political life is as rare as a second inaugural address—Obama’s will be only the eighth in the past century.

And, for the most part, they are forgotten. Most of them deservedly so, and a few, like Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 stirring call for Americans to become “citizens of the world,” sadly lost in the mists of time. Only Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 Depression-era evocation of “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” endures as rhetoric.

In fact, the second inaugural addresses by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush offer a primer in how even experienced presidents can go wrong after they take the oath of office. Each of these presidents made rookie rhetoric mistakes the second time around.

Reagan, who in an uncharacteristic failure to match his oratory with a sense of occasion, delivered a speech with the same rhythms and cadences as a State of the Union Address. An inaugural address is not the time for the tedious specifics that Reagan offered in 1985: “I will shortly submit a budget to the Congress aimed at freezing government program spending for the next year.”

Clinton consciously played against type in 1997 as his second inaugural address was designed to be thematic rather than a laundry list of policy proposals. But a speech like that requires a governing vision, which Clinton, at that point in his presidency, lacked. So instead of ideas, the speech was filled with the empty phrases of speechwriters straining for Mount Rushmore: “America demands and deserves big things from us—and nothing big ever came from being small.”

Unlike Reagan and Clinton, the often tongue-tied Bush understood the demands of a second inaugural address. His 2005 speech from Capitol was a deftly crafted, passionately argued case for his crusade to replace autocracy with democracy throughout the world. Bush’s problem was that, despite his reelection, the American people were turning against the Iraq War. And even soaring inaugural rhetoric could not rescue an unpopular and misguided military adventure in the Middle East.

If Obama errs in any familiar direction with his second inaugural, he is apt to fall into the Clinton trap of soaring words in quest of an idea worthy of them. Obama’s problem is that the three issues most likely to dominate 2013 (gun violence, immigration and the never-ending fiscal crisis) do not easily lend themselves to an inaugural address.

The 20 dead children in Newtown have obviously stoked a deep passion within Obama unlike any other tragedy that he has faced as president. Yet banning the sale of assault weapons and other gun-control measures—despite their importance—do not represent the most pressing challenges facing America in 2013. Guns may well serve as the centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union Address next month, but the topic is out of place in an inaugural address. 

Immigration is the other big issue vying for its place on the Obama 2013 legislative agenda. But its legislative complexity (combining a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with guest worker programs favored by business) does not lend itself to a formal address that frames a presidency. Once again, we are dealing with State of the Union fodder.

The sluggish recovery and the pyrotechnics surrounding the federal budget might prompt the president to, once again, build his inaugural address around the economy. The problem is that it is hard to imagine an argument about the economy coming from Obama (or his Republican adversaries) that the American people have not heard on an endless loop of campaign rhetoric. An inaugural address, after all, is not a presidential greatest-hits album.

Obama came into office decrying the partisan paralysis in Washington. And on many occasions he has returned to this theme with little practical result. But if ever there was an occasion for some grand presidential gesture—for some fresh and compelling patriotic argument—about changing the death-grip political culture of the nation’s capital, it is now on the brink several self-destructive budget battles in Congress.

An inaugural address is the only moment—outside a grave crisis—when a president speaks as the elected representative of all the American people. It is not a State of the Union with syncopated applause lines and angry legislators shouting, “You lie!” It is instead a quadrennial celebration of our 224-year-old democracy—and the occasion demands a speech that transcends ordinary presidential verbiage.

As Obama stands on the west front of the Capitol next Monday afternoon, gazing down at hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens, he ideally will find language and articulate ideas that will change the tired debates in Washington and the nation. Anything less and the 44th president will have squandered one of the greatest opportunities of his second term.