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: