This is a tale of two speeches. They occur three weeks apart. One is outdoors, one indoors. In one the president faces west, where he was born, reared, came of age, and where his outlook — great possibilities, new beginnings — is rooted. In the other, the president faces Congress, where he served for less than four years, where the destiny of his hopes will be decided, where his greatest troubles lie.
The first speech, of course, is his inaugural address on Monday. In it he must set the tone for his second term and give a sense of the kind of country, society and world he is trying to shape. The second speech is his State of the Union address on Feb. 12. That is a different kind of speech entirely.
Presumably the president is at work on both. He knows that very few inaugural addresses resonate in the national memory and that almost no State of the Union address counts for much. The one is a musical overture to a presidential term, the other a dry docket with all the violin music of a shopping list, though George W. Bush did use his 2002 address to declaim on the “axis of evil.”
More than many presidents, Barack Obama has learned the limits of the power of the presidency, a concept promulgated by political scientist Richard Neustadt, whose book on presidential leadership John F. Kennedy distributed to his advisers. But he understands that he has the capacity to set a direction, which he can do again Monday — a different task than setting an agenda, which he is to do Feb. 12.
Inaugural addresses reflect the times in which they are delivered, which is why Franklin Roosevelt spoke in 1933 of the danger of fear itself, and why Abraham Lincoln in 1861 addressed the South: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.”
The year 1861 was a special case — the country was falling apart — but generally an inaugural address is a time for reflection, even consecration. In his first inaugural, for example, Ronald Reagan mentioned inflation and unemployment in passing and didn’t speak of the U.S. hostages in Iran, who at that very hour were being freed. Instead, Reagan provided the leitmotif of his administration: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The Reagan remarks offer Obama a good starting point for his own second inaugural address. The president who prevailed in his effort to pass a comprehensive health care overhaul still owes the country a comprehensive view of his conception of the role of government in the economy. After two presidential campaigns and a full term in the White House, the president has yet to set that out, giving rise to complaints from the right that Obama is a socialist and grumbling from the left that he has failed to redeem their progressive hopes.
The president and the country were deeply affected by the violence in the classrooms of Newtown, Conn., and inevitably the president will comment on that sad American moment. But he must resist the temptation to use the sacred occasion of his inauguration to set forth specifics on gun control, or to campaign for its approval. Instead, the inaugural address is a time for him to set forth his vision for a civil society — an occasion to speak of the American heritage of fraternity and how he views the tension between community and individual rights.
The president sometimes is legitimately criticized for his failure to provide specifics, but Monday is not the time to compensate for that. If his inaugural address is to be remembered at all, he must heed the second sentence of Lincoln’s first such speech:
“I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.”
That’s what Feb. 12 is all about.
There was a time when every American schoolchild knew that Feb. 12 was Lincoln’s birthday, a small fact whose passing from the American collective consciousness speaks volumes about the country’s historical memory. Indeed, the substitution of celebrating Lincoln’s and Washington’s separate February birthdays, 10 days apart, for the more generic Presidents Day, which includes Warren Harding and John Tyler, symbolizes a celebration of mediocrity across the nation.
But a president who wants to set himself apart from the Chester Arthurs and the Martin Van Burens — Obama was, after all, the candidate who in 2008 said he didn’t look like all those presidents on American currency — must seek to place himself alongside Lincoln, who knew how to use an inaugural address.
At his second inaugural, Lincoln didn’t linger on the subject on everyone’s mind, the battle still raging with Confederate forces. “With high hope for the future,” he said, “no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” That was it.
Instead, we remember Lincoln’s speech for his vision of a new America: “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 a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln proved that a run-on sentence can be stirring; in this case, its rhythms are those of the heart.
He proved that broad statements can have specific meanings; this passage is engraved on the Washington headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and its goals have been part of the American social compact for a century and a half.
And the man who spoke volumes with only 272 words at a Gettysburg cemetery dedication set a standard for inaugural addresses in 1865 at exactly 700 words.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s about 300 fewer than this column.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.