Four years ago, when Barack Obama delivered an inaugural address in the middle of the country’s worst recession in seven decades, more than 1 million supporters braved frigid weather to hear his first words as president.
Now, as he prepares to formally take office for a new term, he faces an equally challenging task the second time around.
With Washington almost paralyzed by partisan gridlock and Republicans threatening a government shutdown, Obama must reassure Americans he can lead the way forward after a bitter campaign and debate over the nation’s finances. For a president who’s been criticized for delegating negotiations to his vice president and staying above the fray, it will be a high hurdle.
“He needs to have a speech that after all of that basically says, ‘Let’s all pull together’,” said Clark Judge, who was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. “This is a time to rise above partisanship.”
Yet Obama’s goals are inherently contradictory: As much as the president needs to unite the nation, he also must rally supporters for a second-term agenda that’s broadly opposed by congressional Republicans. Obama and his team have already described an ambitious slate of priorities -- revamping immigration laws, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, strengthening gun control and rewriting the tax code.
“He has the opportunity to paint a vision of where the country ought to go,” said Democratic strategist and former speechwriter Bob Shrum. “There are some big challenges ahead.”
Obama and his long-time speechwriter, Jon Favreau, started trading ideas for his second inauguration address shortly after his re-election on Nov. 6.
They’re striving to say something for the ages. The president has called “extraordinary” John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech declaring that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” and said he is “intimidated” when he reads Abraham Lincoln’s second address. Some of the others, he said in a January 2009 interview with ABC News, “are not as inspiring.”
Traditionally, those addresses follow a standard -- and largely underwhelming -- pattern: lay out the challenges facing the country and call on national values to fix them.
Four years ago, Obama spoke of “gathering clouds and raging storms” facing the nation and urged Americans to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.” Meeting the challenges ahead requires “a new era of responsibility,” he said.
The clouds this time are mainly political, with Republicans talking of bringing the government to a halt or even forcing a debt default unless Obama agrees to deep spending cuts. Bond investors haven’t shown alarm, with yields on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes, a benchmark for everything from mortgages to corporate borrowing costs, down from more than 5 percent in 2007, before the financial crisis of 2008. The 10-year yield declined one basis point to 1.82 percent as of 11:18 a.m. in Tokyo, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader data.
Still, Obama’s speech must take the threats seriously, even if investors don’t. He’ll have to address the dispute at a time when he has lost the thrill of being a relatively new presence to Americans.
“Second inaugural addresses are very forgettable,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian at the University of Texas who has met with Obama several times. “The speech is going to be harder to write in a way that’s going to impact the moment in history.”
Only four inaugural addresses cracked a list of the top 100 political speeches of the 20th century compiled by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M University.
The four, named in a survey of 137 experts in political communication, were the first addresses by Kennedy; Franklin Roosevelt; Woodrow Wilson, who said government’s role was to mitigate the harmful effects of industrialization; and Reagan, who declared that “government is the problem.”
One of the most notorious was given by William Henry Harrison, who delivered the longest such address on record, in 1841 -- a widely panned speech of more than 8,000 words that lasted 105 minutes. Even a snowstorm couldn’t force Harrison to stop speaking, and he died of pneumonia a month later.
“Inaugural speeches in general are bad,” said Brands, “and people particularly don’t expect much from a second inaugural address.”
Lincoln’s second address, in 1865, was one of the shortest and is perhaps the most famous. He urged Americans with “malice toward none” to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and helped the country begin the process of healing from the Civil War.
Historians also point to Roosevelt’s second speech, when he challenged Americans to confront the continued poverty of the Great Depression. “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” he said in 1937.
Though not required by law, almost every president has given an inaugural address, except four who succeeded men who died in office.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford addressed the country after taking the oath of office upon Richard Nixon’s resignation, in remarks that Ford characterized as “not an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech -- just a little straight talk among friends.”
Speechwriters have high expectations for Obama, who they say is adept at defining the moment.
“His gift has always been the ability to place this moment in the arc of America,” said Paul Orzulak, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. “There’s nobody more skilful than the president in taking American history and bending it towards his own goals.”
It’s a style Shrum describes as a mix of small talk and a sonnet.
“He can be soaringly inspirational and colloquial at the same time,” said Shrum, who wrote Senator Edward Kennedy’s much-quoted speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, when he promised his party that “the dream shall never die.”
Since the 2004 convention speech that catapulted Obama onto the national stage with a vision of the country that could overcome historical divisions, the president has shown himself to be comfortable with the historical sweep and poetic phrasing typical in inaugural addresses.
Many of the most memorable moments of his first presidential campaign came from speeches: his 2008 victory address in the Iowa caucuses where he laid out campaign promises, including expanding health care; a speech to 200,000 people in Berlin in which he urged “partnership and cooperation among nations”; and his call in Philadelphia to end a “racial stalemate,” which helped set aside questions about his long association with a fiery Chicago pastor.
During his first term, and for much of the recent campaign, Obama moved to a more prosaic style, focused on specific policy achievements and a list of second-term goals.
His address before the Democratic convention in September was panned as lackluster, even as Clinton won praise the night before for his defense of the Obama’s record. Orzulak says Obama had to lose some of the poetry to focus on contrasting his record with that of his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.
“He wasn’t free to give these kinds of soaring speeches,” he said. “Inauguration is the time and place for this kind of thing.”
In his re-election victory speech in Chicago that may foreshadow the style of his inauguration address, Obama tried to move past the vitriol of what he called the “small, even silly” campaigns by tapping into the power of history.
“Tonight, more than 200 years after a former colony won the right to determine its own destiny, the task of perfecting our union moves forward,” he told a crowd of supporters.
The president typically begins working on a major address by dictating thoughts to Favreau, who then works with members of the speechwriting team to shape them into a draft that is passed back and forth between the president and his staff. White House officials wouldn’t comment on the president’s speechwriting process or preview the themes of his address.
The writers are intimately familiar with his language, pacing, and thinking. Favreau, 31, entered the White House as the second-youngest person to ever work as chief presidential speechwriter.
Their partnership started in 2004, when Obama, newly elected to the Senate, brought Favreau to the Senate dining room for an interview. The recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross had gotten his first shot at speechwriting as an assistant on Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign after his own speech as class valedictorian had gained the notice of campaign aides.
After two years in Obama’s Senate office, Favreau moved to Chicago to help with the presidential campaign. From there, it was on to the White House.
With the role came increased scrutiny: During his time in the position, Favreau became something of a Washington celebrity, dating actress Rashida Jones and playing a shirtless game of beer pong at a Georgetown bar that was chronicled on gossip websites.
Favreau has worked on every major address given by Obama, including his first inauguration. That address was praised for its restraint, with historians and speechwriters commending the president’s use of plain language and strong images.
“His first inauguration address will be quoted by every historian 40 or 50 years from now,” said Brands. “Obama realizes the big moments.”