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President Barack Obama will deliver his second inaugural address Monday to crowds a little smaller and expectations a little lower. And though he might not go into painstaking policy detail, he likely will provide a window into his broad plans for the next four years.
The second inaugural address of any president is rarely as anticipated as the first, but the speech tends to serve as a measure of where the president stands and how he views the state of the world and America’s place in it.
President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address in 2005 focused on his vision of foreign policy in a post-9/11 world — part justification for the three years and two wars before his address and part loose outline of his continuing plans to bring democracy to oppressed nations. President Bill Clinton’s second speech reflected the looming turn of the century, the explosion of the Internet and how the information age could be leveraged to form a better America.
But if there’s any challenge that has shaped the Obama presidency during the past two years — and might define his final four — it’s the very dysfunction and divisiveness of Washington that he campaigned against in 2008 and spoke about eradicating in his first inaugural address. How he confronts the Republican opposition in his speech not only will reflect a more battle-worn president but also could telegraph his approach to legislating during the next four years.
“There have been 16 second inaugural addresses in all of our history, and there’s a certain pattern to them. ... They encapsulate the philosophy of the president at that moment in time,” former Clinton speechwriter Paul Glastris said on NPR last week. “I expect what we’ll see from President Obama is an encapsulation of his idea of the role of government in American society, very much informed by his re-election and very much informed by the tussle with Republicans at this moment and the specific agenda items he has before him.”
Traditionally, inaugural speeches are more aimed at the general public than State of the Union addresses, which are carefully crafted to target members of Congress, appease certain constituent groups and perhaps push specific agenda items.
Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor, said that in the scheme of history, inaugural speeches have frequently been irrelevant or matter only in that they sometimes include grand pronouncements that look embarrassing a few months later.