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What Can We Glean From Obama's Inaugural Speech?

President likely to outline philosophy for his final term

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
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 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.

“Even speeches that are regarded as great speeches are either contradicted by what the president did or by events,” Kazin said, adding that he expects Obama to deliver something similar to most other presidents, “glittering generalities and an appeal to greater ideals, and not much else.”

In that regard, there will be little for Republicans to critique, at least immediately Monday.

But that does not mean the GOP’s general grievances with this administration won’t help shape the message Obama delivers. Lawmakers are facing an uncertain and busy beginning of 2013. They struck an eleventh-hour deal to avert massive tax increases for all Americans on New Year’s Eve, but they punted on raising the debt limit, replacing scheduled, across-the-board spending cuts and funding the government.

And Republicans seemed miffed by the president’s every move, most recently expressing consternation over the Obama campaign operation being overhauled into a nonprofit group to advocate the president’s agenda.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Jan. 18 at his conference’s retreat in Williamsburg, Va., accused the president of still being in campaign mode despite being unable to run again for office.

“When this president can’t run for any more office, I read today that he’s going to keep his campaign office open. I think it’s time we put people before politics,” McCarthy said. “Put the campaigns down. The elections are over. ... Now is the time to govern.”

Of course, Republicans have groups similar to Organizing for Action, the rebranded Obama for America. The new OFA is the same kind of organization as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. This is the reality Obama likely will condemn in words but embrace in practice, a balancing act of each political leader and part of what has tamped down excitement, particularly from liberals, for the president’s speech Monday.

The White House is keeping mum on the details of the address, with Press Secretary Jay Carney saying only that Obama is “very appreciative of the fact that the American people have given him this opportunity to deliver a second inaugural address. He, as you know, takes very seriously speeches of this kind and is very engaged in the process.”

Meanwhile, it’s not even clear that inaugural speeches have that much effect. There have been a few remarkable ones — those given by Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy come to mind — but by and large, they tend not to be the most remembered presidential orations.

It’s mostly about the pomp and circumstance. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who chairs the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, echoed on Jan. 18 Carney’s sentiment that Obama is very hands-on with his speeches, but he also put the president on par with a pop star.

“He almost always writes a lot of this himself. He’s a great writer. He’s a great orator. So that will be — as much as I want to hear Kelly Clarkson — I’m looking forward to his speech most of all,” Schumer said, when asked about what he wanted to hear in Obama’s speech.

There’s also a question of Obama’s preferred audience. While some Republicans hope to hear a more conciliatory speech, Democrats on the mall and watching across the country might want to hear something else entirely.

“The real Obama is complicated and he has to decide which one he wants to emphasize — the conciliator, the proud progressive, the racial, ethnic inclusivist?” Kazin said.

For those dissatisfied by Monday’s offering, the State of the Union is only a few weeks away.

Steven T. Dennis and Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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