Quick—name your favorite line from an inaugural address.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
What do they have in common? All of them are from first inaugural addresses.
Ever since Abe Lincoln delivered his second-inaugural masterpiece—“With malice toward none; with charity for all”—just one month before he was cut down by the coward John Wilkes Booth, second inaugurals have been well-written afterthoughts in the eyes of history, lacking memorable lines or defining pronouncements. Perhaps there’s a second-inaugural curse, or perhaps it’s simply that after four years in office it’s more difficult for a returning president, hemmed in by his time and actions in office, to simply lay out a compelling narrative for his political vision.
Nixon chose his post-49-state-landslide second inaugural to don his statesman robes, surveying a nation briefly more united than four years before, with Vietnam winding down and détente with the Soviets looking durable.
Reagan’s second inaugural—held inside the Capital dome on a frigid Monday—took the revolutionary tone of his first inaugural from four years before and tied it into the mainstream of American history, acclaiming the quintessential courage of the civil-rights movement, which had not seemed to self-evident to many conservatives two decades before.
Bill Clinton used the high-water mark of his presidency to proclaim that his “bridge to the 21st century” was being built—surveying the struggles and successes of the 20th and then envisioning the next, with the tech-boom-inspired optimism of the era.
The best of the bunch, surprisingly, is George W. Bush’s second inaugural—precisely because it is not a survey or a summing up. It is instead a tightly targeted speech, defining his freedom agenda and foreign policy. The speech seemed to be heavily influenced by leading neoconservative thinkers—Norman Podhoretz, in particular—and it captures an era and an ethos. Some lines age less well than others—“America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling,” for example—but it its imagery, cadence, and economy are exemplary.
This is the challenge that Obama will face in his second inaugural. His first was frankly not one of his better speeches—see if you can recall a single turn of phrase—in large part because it aimed to cover so many subjects. History shows that this temptation only grows with a second inaugural. Obama is unique in that before his presidency, he was an accomplished writer, and he is rightly known as an inspiring orator. But somehow those talents don’t always coalesce into him being a great communicator—storytelling is not his strength.
But with the world watching Monday, he will get a second chance to sum up this era and his administration. Fate has given him a perfect gift around which to frame the address. It is, after all, Martin Luther King Day.