For Obama, More Prose than Poetry in Second Inaugural

By Richard Tofel, ProPublica

As we did four years ago, we asked Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president and author of a book on President Kennedy’s inaugural address, to provide instant analysis of Monday’s speech. Here are his thoughts:

In 2009, in the flush of his first election, Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address that, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.” Today, perhaps chastened by the trials of governing and the difficulty of gaining election a second time, he did not so much acknowledge that the cynics of 2009 had been right as devote himself to trying, one more time, to move the ground beneath them.

The critical portion of the address seemed to be this: “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time…. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” Whether such a call, even with the president’s present strength and confidence, will shift the ground will be the great question of the next period in our politics and history.

The speech centered on the two fundamental American texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Obama quoted the heart of Jefferson’s Declaration verbatim, and then turned repeatedly, as his organizing rhetorical device, to the opening words of the Constitution: “We, the People.” By the speech’s end, seeking a call to action and perhaps a counterweight to the polarization of Washington, “we, the people” became “you and I, as citizens.”

Along the way, in addition to drawing on the words of Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama managed to reference Lincoln four times in two paragraphs, adverting to the Gettysburg Address (“government of, and by, and for the people”), Lincoln’s second inaugural (“blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword”), the “House Divided” speech (“no union… could survive half-slave and half-free”) and Lincoln’s second message to Congress (“made ourselves anew”). The one source not quoted in the speech, in a striking departure from inaugural tradition, seems to have been the Bible.

Indeed, the speech overall was more prosaic than most inaugurals. It was somewhat surprising, in this context, to hear a defense of entitlements, a disquisition on climate change, and calls for immigration reform and an end to voter suppression legislation. In all of this, Obama’s model may have been Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 second inaugural—the first such address delivered in January—which was a clarion call for liberal politics and an attempt to cast it in the American mainstream. Sixteen days later FDR over-reached with his Court-packing plan, and his influence in domestic affairs began to ebb.

All of this reminds us that second inaugurals are harder. The lofty hopes of office-taking must give way to the sober experience of office-holding. Nearly all of the immortal words of addresses past come from first inaugurals: Jefferson’s “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists;” Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory;” FDR’s “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Only Lincoln’s second inaugural—“with malice toward none”—lives on in the same way.

And yet, second inaugurals come from a place of strength. By definition, they can be given only by presidents whose tenure has been validated again at the ballot box. Of our 43 presidents (Grover Cleveland is both “22” and “24”), Barack Obama is only the 17th to have had the privilege of delivering a second inaugural address. (Another four presidents won an election after succeeding to the office, which may be similar, at least for these purposes.)

The first big decision President Obama faced in crafting Monday’s address, I think, was how rhetorical he wanted it to be. Obama came to the presidency on soaring wings of rhetoric, from the “red states/blue states” of the 2004 Convention keynote that introduced him to much of the country, to the vision of post-racial triumph when he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, to his speech on race when the controversy on Rev. Jeremiah Wright threatened to sink his campaign, to his outdoor acceptance speech in Denver, to that unforgettable Election Night in Grant Park.

In the face of all that, many of us found his first inaugural somewhat muted, with its Biblical injunction that “the time has come to set aside childish things” and its command that “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” Perhaps Obama had internalized Mario Cuomo’s observation that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Perhaps he had come nearly to distrust the power of his own instrument. In any event, he kept it largely under wraps during his first term, pumping up the volume only occasionally (for instance in the critical congressional address on health care), but often leaving his listeners with the sense that he had fallen a bit flat, as in his second Convention acceptance last summer in Charlotte, and almost disastrously in his apparent failure to prepare a closing statement in his first debate with Mitt Romney.

In recent months, however, Obama has again seemed to find his voice—or to reach for it. We saw this on Election Night 2012 and again in his speech at Newtown. I began to expect that we would see it again in the inaugural.

There were moments of such poetry Monday, but they seemed outweighed by the prose. The President’s calculation seemed to be that the occasion presented a chance—perhaps a last chance—to recall the political system to what Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, called the “better angels of our nature.” What the prospects are for such a transformation, only the days ahead can reveal.

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January 24, 2013  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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