What Obama Can Learn From the Greatest Inaugural Addresses

If Obama wants to be remembered he’d do well to consult Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy.

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FILE - This Jan. 20, 1961 black-and-white file photo shows President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural address after taking the oath of office, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sixteen presidents before Barack Obama got a second chance at giving an inaugural address for the ages. Most didn’t make much of it. Abraham Lincoln is the grand exception.

President Obama has a couple of big challenges Monday. First, as I write in my assessment today of the greatest inaugural addresses in history, these speeches are as a general rule not memorable. Think of it this way: There have been, to date, 56 inaugural addresses, but only six or seven have stood the test of time (I cover the top five, but Lincoln's first could easily be on that list). And beyond that, second inaugurals especially tend not to be very interesting.

[See a slide show of the 5 best inaugural addresses.]

"In a second inaugural you have fewer possibilities open to you," says Jeff Shesol, who was a speechwriter for President Clinton. "You are bounded a bit by the previous four years and the commitments you've made and the failures you've had." Presidential historian Robert Dallek adds that four years in a president's "speaking style and his programmatic approach to things is fairly well known at that point."

So perhaps the biggest thing Obama has going for him is that expectations are low (or at least they should be).

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Finally great speeches generally require great moments. Four of the five best inaugural addresses came at times of existential crisis for the country: Thomas Jefferson's first occurred during the young republic's first transfer of power from one party to the other; Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural occurred at the end of the Civil War; and Franklin Roosevelt's first two came during the Great Depression. "Timing has something to do with" an inaugural's enduring appeal, says Michael Cohen, author of Live From the Trail, a book about great presidential speechwriters.

With all that in mind, here are four lessons Obama and his speechwriters could draw from the greatest inaugurals. (Note: I haven't the faintest doubt that Obama and his team have already read the speeches and more or less his address.)

Do be magnanimous. Jefferson's first and Lincoln's second inaugurals came at moments of triumph. Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans had defeated President John Adams's Federalists soundly. But the country had never before experienced a partisan handover of power and Federalists were worried about what a Jefferson administration would bring: wild-eyed populism at best or a French Revolution-style reign of terror at worst. But Jefferson used his speech to allay his enemies' fears: "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle," he said. "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists."

[See Photos: Presidential Inaugurations Throughout History.]

And Lincoln delivered his second inaugural as the Civil War was winding down. But instead of a victory speech, chose a different tone, noting that God gave "to both North and South this terrible war as the woes due" for America's original sin, slavery. He closed:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

[See Photos Behind the Scenes: Preparing for Obama's Second Inauguration.]

Obviously Obama isn't renewing his oath at a time even remotely akin to 1801 or 1865 (despite what some in the Tea Party fringe might say). But a magnanimous tone is a good way to start a term.

Don't be programmatic. Too many of the forgettable inaugural addresses read like State of the Union addresses—long lists of programs and policies which ground what should be a more elevated occasion ("a day of national consecration," as FDR put it in his first inaugural, or a "celebration of freedom," in JFK's words). The best inaugurals, Shesol says, "speak very directly to their moment but they also say something to our own. They manage to be timeless without being lost in the ether somewhere."

Do be philosophical. The two most recent of the great inaugurals have been eloquent expressions of the liberal governing philosophy. In Roosevelt's second inaugural, in 1937, he made a strong, eloquent case for activist government.

We of the Republic sensed the truth that democratic government has innate capacity to protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, to solve problems once considered unsolvable. We would not admit that we could not find a way to master economic epidemics just as, after centuries of fatalistic suffering, we had found a way to master epidemics of disease. We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to be solved by the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Does Barack Obama Have a Mandate?]

Two dozen years later, Kennedy devoted his inaugural to a foreign policy. While some of his eloquence has a tinge of tragedy—promises to "bear any burden" in the fight against communism take on a new meaning after Vietnam—it is balanced by his stirring summons to public service and his exhortation to "begin anew the quest for peace" and find ways to work together and "join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved."

Do have some poetry. You can't have a memorable speech without memorable lines. In addition to the passages already quoted here I would be remiss to omit what are possibly the two most famous inaugural lines ever delivered: FDR's exhortation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and JFK's to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

[See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

Obama's first inaugural was—intentionally, it seems—calibrated not to soar. "It had its feet solidly on the ground and that was one of its strengths, but I don't think it reached high enough," says Shesol. Presidential speechwriters joke about attempt to "write for the marble"—trying too hard to compose something that will end up carved into a presidential memorial one day. But given what the president is capable of both as a speaker and as a crafter of speeches, it would be a real pity if he didn't use the occasion of either of his inaugural addresses to swing for the proverbial fences. The odds are against success, but if he beats them we'll witness history.

As the poet Robert Browning once wrote, "For a man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

  • Read Susan Milligan: GOP Must Stand Up to Intolerance in the Party
  • Read Brad Bannon: Obama's Inaugural Address Must Change the Conversation
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