Opinion

The Great Debate

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

By Michael Waldman
January 18, 2013

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

We remember the Inaugural Addresses that marked a bold departure, a president arriving amid crisis. Thomas Jefferson in 1801 – after the nation’s first contested election – declaring, “We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, pleading for the South to remain in the Union, and vowing to repress rebellion by force until “the better angels of our nature” returned. Franklin D. Roosevelt declaring “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” referring to the bank panics that imperiled the nation.

Only John F. Kennedy’s thrilling Cold War call to arms is remembered for sheer eloquence, rather than the crisis it addressed. Though its militance helped create plenty of crises within a few years.

Second Inaugurals stand out only when the original crisis persists. FDR memorably proclaimed “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Lincoln called the Civil War God’s punishment for slavery, and urged a lenient Reconstruction policy “with charity for all.”

So let’s spare some sympathy for Obama and his speechwriters. I worked with President Bill Clinton on two of these Inaugural Addresses. His first in 1993 crisply set out the need for economic renewal, and set the stage for budget battles and political reform.

By his second Inaugural, though, Clinton found himself uncharacteristically at a loss for what to say. The result was a speech unrecognizably grandiose, quickly forgotten. He regained his footing in his State of the Union Address two weeks later – passionate, organized and focused on education reform.

I suspect my old boss would have craved the chance to give an Inaugural amid economic collapse – an opportunity history granted Obama in 2009. The economy was swooning, confronting the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Obama should have described the causes of the crash; decried financial speculation and deregulation, and explained why a strong government response was needed. He should have laid out for the country, in vivid colors, why vast deficit spending was needed, now.

Instead, Obama mulled on the need for political leaders to “put away childish things.” He shrunk from his role as ideological political leader, focusing instead on his self-image as a rare adult in politics. At the time, I charitably said that Obama “didn’t strive for cheap quotability.”

It has been an odd fact that this president has consistently refrained from making bold statements when he had his widest and most consequential audience. Obama never delivered an Oval Office address on the stimulus, one of his most significant policy achievements. His State of the Union Addresses rarely launched new policies or made sharp new arguments. His speech to the Democratic Convention even declined to set out a coherent second-term agenda.

Historians will likely ponder why this singularly gifted man, who won office as much because of his eloquence as his achievements, so rarely deployed that skill on behalf of compelling policy arguments.

Adlai Stevenson, a famously erudite, two-time Democratic presidential nominee, recounted, “In classical times, when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke.’ But when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, ‘Let us march.’”

That’s the sly secret behind great speeches: They contain a powerful, often prosaic political argument. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? “If you agree with the Founding Fathers, then I was right to end slavery.” FDR’s “economic royalists” speech? “Expand government.” Ronald Reagan’s “government is not the solution, government is the problem”? Let’s cut taxes!

Obama has a chance to make such a pointed, ideological speech Monday. Surely he has shed the illusion that rhetorical balm will somehow disarm his foes. He cannot ignore the donkey in the room – the need to articulate a Democratic vision for the role of government.

Obama can define the November results as a decisive referendum on the proper role for the state. Why were Keynesian deficits needed? Why is it the case that government does not have a “spending problem,” as he reportedly told House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)? With the Baby Boomers ambling toward retirement, how does he expect our nation to care for them without reform of health care and retirement programs, or higher taxes on everyone, or both? How, beyond bromides, can we curb the power of big campaign money so the government works for ordinary citizens?

He should drape his policy arguments in the cloak of American history.  Obama must show how his policies uphold the values of the Declaration of Independence and America’s “civic religion.”

I have a hunch Obama will surprise us Monday. A good omen came in his powerful eulogy to the families of the murdered children and elementary school teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. He could have limited himself to feeling their pain. Instead, obliquely but unmistakably, he angrily declaimed on the need for stricter gun laws.

So, Mr. President, if you want my advice, don’t aim for history. Aim lower, hit harder. What could go wrong? As JFK said, “Ask not.”

 

PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama at the Southern Regional Ball after his first Inaugural in Washington January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

PHOTO (Insert Middle): President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first Inaugural Address in Washington, March 4, 1933.  REUTERS/FDR Library/Handout

PHOTO (Insert Bottom): President Clinton at a White House news conference in 1996. REUTERS/Luc Novovitch

Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Interesting to compare a Clinton speechwriter’s expectations/thoughts to Peggy Noonan’s (Reagan speechwriter) in this week’s WSJ (online). Both of you acknowledge that inaugurations have historically been a chance to unite the country (if briefly) and remind us that we are in this together. She hopes he will continue this, give a speech that doesn’t vilify or denigrate those who disagree with him, and be bigger than the small paranoid man he has become. You hope he will “aim-lower”. Enough said.
He will disappoint you both. He will not ‘be big’ as Noonan advises or lead the way with a strong vision of how a big government is better, as you hope. He is not big, a leader, and if he had vision he would have offered it once during the 12-month campaign.
Look for an attempt at a “grandiose” speech that will come off sounding self pitying and hollow. If you are thinking about playing a drinking game around his ever present rhetorical straw man, don’t plan on attending the balls later. Your desired attacks, the denigration of opponents and more straw man will come with the SOTU address. As Noonan said, this is getting boring.

Posted by thenix | Report as abusive
 

I can already hear it: With all the heart and soul of a toaster oven and the painfully predictable, repetitive, and mind numbingly boring voice inflections, and intonations he’s tortured us with for the last 4 years; off he’ll go. First, he’ll look up and to the right for two seconds, (look regal and quick, read the teleprompter) then up and to the left for two seconds, (look regal for the cameras, read the teleprompter); and on and on, and on…… with the cadence of a metronome, back and forth – tick tock- with his usual air of petulance, arrogance, animosity, and sanctimoniousness, he’ll spew out the same inane: lies, drivel, demagoguery, innuendo, hyperbole and tripe, that he always has…… and will – for the next four miserable years. Bravo….

Posted by VirgilFranks | Report as abusive
 

I agree with the author. Obama should “aim lower” and he should be accurate, hitting the target right on the head. But if not, his aim should definitely be no higher than the jugular.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

To reference JFK’s “Ask not…” is disingenuous when you have a President who invokes redistribution and greater dependency on government.

Here we have President whose inaugural speech espouses unity, after he spent the four years alienating over 50% of the population–gun owners, the wealthy, Christians, the coal industry,…. His concept of unity is to have no one take exception with his agenda of more spending and higher taxes on those who work for a living. This guy never seeks any middle ground–everything is always “non-negotiable” as soon as he says it.

So how do you unify the country when your entire agenda has been to demonize anyone/everyone who disagrees with you? It doesn’t make any difference if you aim high or aim low–when you objective is to radically change the same country that gave him his opportunity.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

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