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.