Obama’s Second Term Challenge
It sure does feel different than four years ago. Remember the crowds, the excitement and the sense that history was being made in 2009 with the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president? There is definitely a different feel to this second inauguration. More tempered, I guess. It seems less about history and celebration and more about figuring out how everybody just gets along in Washington. The backdrop of the divisive debates over gun control and the budget loom large over this year’s inauguration.
The fact is, last November’s election settled nothing in terms of the great debate of our time on the size of the U.S. federal government and what its role should be the in the everyday lives of Americans. The president won his second term and Republicans were rebuked, also losing seats in both the Senate and House of Representatives. But those congressional Republicans returning to Washington don’t feel chastened. Many are more determined than ever to press their demands for a reduction in the size and role of government and appear willing to use upcoming debates over raising the debt ceiling and funding the government to make their case.
An Apprehensive Public
The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News public opinion poll found that only 43 percent of those surveyed are optimistic about the next four years. That’s even worse than the 48 percent who felt that way at the beginning of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005. I remember covering one of the inaugural balls that year and many of the Republicans I talked to seemed less excited about the next four years than they were relieved that their guy had bested Democrat John Kerry a few months earlier.
So what does President Obama say and do to get people excited about his second term? He’ll have an opportunity with his inaugural address, but if history is any guide that will be a long shot. Can anybody remember a catchy line from his first inaugural address in 2009? I didn’t think so. I’m sure there will be more about the need for national unity, the desire to put our differences aside and find common ground for the good of the country. And all of that is proper and has to be said. But how do you get people to go along with it? How do you get them to the point they are willing to set aside some of their differences and come together for the common good. Decades of political polarization in this country have taken a toll and it’s not likely one speech will do much to bridge that gap.
Inaugural Words for the Ages
Historians say it’s rare that an inaugural address has much of a political impact on the country. Political analyst and frequent VOA contributor Larry Sabato wrote recently in his Crystal Ball newsletter that there have only been two truly memorable inaugural addresses in U.S. history and I think it’s hard to argue with him. Sabato cites President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech in 1865 and John F. Kennedy’s stirring address in 1961. Lincoln spoke eloquently about trying to bind up the nation’s wounds as the Civil War drew to a close. Kennedy delivered what became a clarion call for a new, younger generation of national leadership to take on the Cold War world of the 1960’s and to urge Americans to get re-engaged with their country through public service with his “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” riff that wound up inspiring a generation.
For the most part, though, presidents have to face the reality that much of what they say in inaugural addresses is lost to the ages. Finding a way to break that historical pattern and set a lasting tone for a second term is often elusive at best. Add to the mix the fact that presidents also start to think of their place in history more in their second terms, mindful that lasting success can be fleeting and that much of their legacy was already built during their first term. Political reality also dictates that presidents have a small window of time in their second term to actually get things done. Most experts say the president has about a year and a half to get major pieces of legislation through Congress before the sands in the political hourglass start to run out and people start to focus on the next presidential election, in this case in 2016.
Inauguration Traditions Evolved
It’s amazing to note how little the U.S. Constitution has to say about presidential inaugurations. It does lay out the oath the new president is to swear to that includes the phrase, “and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The only other reference is contained in the 20th Amendment that set the date for the inauguration as January 20th, much earlier than the traditional date of March 4th . Franklin
Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20th, with his second inauguration in 1937. Since January 20th falls on a Sunday this year, Mr. Obama will keep with tradition by being publicly sworn in on January 21st.
The modern inauguration has evolved into a multi-day extravaganza. What began as the simple installation of a chief executive with an oath to defend the Constitution has morphed into a Hollywood-type made for TV event complete with music, poetry and (hopefully) stirring oratory in the form of the inaugural address.
There is no constitutional requirement for the inaugural address but it was a tradition that goes back to our first president, George Washington. Washington also added the words, “so help me God” at the end of the oath, something all of his successors have repeated. Thomas Jefferson was the first president to ask the Chief Justice of the United States (Supreme Court) to administer the oath, which has now become a staple of the ceremony. The roots of the inaugural parade, which can now last hours, can be traced back to the time of Washington when Revolutionary War veterans accompanied the first president from his home in Virginia to his swearing-in in New York City in 1789. In 1809, newly-inaugurated President James Madison became the first president to host an inaugural ball.
Beyond the ritual of the inauguration, though, is a very powerful symbol of American democracy. In a way, the inauguration is the perfect counterpart to a partisan political campaign during an election year. The campaigns are democracy in its rawest form, full of bombastic rhetoric and political accusations flying back and forth between the candidates and political parties. But once the election is over and the people have spoken, the inauguration serves as an enduring ritual of national acceptance and healing in the wake of an election.
This is especially true in years when control of the White House passes from one party to another. The first time it happened back in 1801, outgoing President John Adams left Washington shortly before his successor, Thomas Jefferson, was sworn in. But that was the exception. Defeated presidents may not like it, but it has become tradition that the outgoing chief executive joins the incoming president on the inaugural platform in a show of national unity and political healing. Among the more memorable scenes were outgoing Vice President Richard Nixon watching President John Kennedy give his inaugural address in 1961 after narrowly losing the White House to Kennedy just a few months before. Or how about Vice President Al Gore witnessing President George W. Bush take the oath in 2001, just weeks after the disputed election was settled in Mr. Bush’s favor by the Supreme Court.