Obama has his work cut out for him on Monday. His inaugural address comes at the end of a long, draining campaign. People are still worried about the economy yet less willing to believe in Washington’s ability to do anything about their troubles. Memorializing this moment in American history, while using the speech to his advantage, is a tall task. TIME asked former presidential speechwriters for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton how the President should introduce his last term.
There are tried truths about inaugural addresses that the Judson Welliver Society types can recite like the Pledge of Allegiance. Don’t be outright partisan. Do link this moment to the larger American narrative. Save the policy details for the State of the Union address that comes a few weeks later. And unless you’re Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War, don’t expect a second inaugural to compete with a first. “The first term is like a baby. It’s all potential,” says Don Baer, who worked on Bill Clinton’s inaugural address in 1997. “The second term there’s been a lot of experience, probably some disappointment … It’s harder to let your rhetoric get out ahead of your ability to make things happen.” Knowingly or not, that’s something Obama did the first time around.
Flying high in 2008, Obama told Americans that unity had triumphed over discord and petty grievances were a thing of the past. “People aren’t going to believe that [Washington] can be ‘fixed’” this time, says Clinton speechwriter David Dreyer: To make such a promise would seem deluded. Still, the speechwriters agree, Obama’s address has to make people feel that the future is not bleak for the country, even if it is not rosy. Republicans and Democrats may never circle a fire and cook s’mores together, Obama could argue, but they are capable of pitching a tent when it’s raining.
The partisan speechwriters diverge on how to best diffuse the cloud of partisan bickering hanging over the capital. The Republicans say Obama should be modest and inclusive in his speech. “Extend a hand of cooperation,” says Ken Khachigian, who worked on Nixon’s staff and on Reagan’s first inaugural. “Self effacement would be a nice new twist coming from this president.” The Democrats suggest that implicit chiding of legislators who have caused gridlock is in order, perhaps along the lines of Clinton’s ’97 line, “Nothing big ever came from being small.” Skip the “wispy appeals to unity,” says Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol; instead, acknowledge deep divisions and recognize that the American people “made clear in this recent election that they want us to find a way to work together despite that.”
The speech is an opportunity for Obama to advance his positions in current debates, like those over gun control and immigration. But that has to happen at the level of subtext. The President shouldn’t mention guns, says Baer, but he may say that part of freedom is also knowing that you can live in safety. The President doesn’t need to use the word immigration, but he could say, “America is a place of vitality. People of the world still come here to build lives and that’s part of what fuels our greatness.” Obama will likely embrace demographic shifts and has certainly organized the ceremony to hit hard on that theme. For the first time, a Latina Supreme Court Justice will help administer the oaths and a gay poet will recite an original work to mark the occasion.
The speech is also an opportunity for Obama to set the broader national psyche at ease, to convince people that the economic nadir is behind us, or dispel any feeling that, as Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson says, “the American project itself is running aground.”
“On practically every other day of the year, the President is trying to lead the country by shouting into a wind tunnel,” says Dreyer. “At an inauguration, the President has the country’s attention. So he has both the opportunity and the obligation to make the most of it.” Dreyer himself couldn’t resist taking a stab at the opposition while he had a megaphone. “The one thing you can be sure that the speech will do is bring a tear to the eye of John Boehner,” he joked. “It’s a low bar.”