What Should Obama Say in His Second Inaugural Address?

TIME asks Reagan and Clinton speechwriters for the answer.

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REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES)

U.S. President Barack Obama gives his first speech during his inauguration ceremony as the 44th President of the United States in Washington, January 20, 2009.

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.”

324 comments
fitty_three
fitty_three

Pretty odd that people keep screaming that Obama flouts the Constitution but forgot that there are mechinsims in place that prevent him from doing so.

It's called rule of law, and there's plenty of recourse should he actually attempt to do it.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

If he wanted to be honest, he could just say that he only represents about half the electorate... meaning, just those who supposedly voted for him. He then could say that he doesn't feel obliged, regardless of the Oath of Office, to defend any old piece of paper called a constitution, stand by any of our long time allies or make any attempt to repair a nation that is in self destruct mode already. 

drudown
drudown

My two cents to my silent brother of many distances: Obama, there is nothing to lose by being a bold President in your 2nd term. And I don't simply mean pushing progressive agendas forward unapologetically. I mean creating a robust debate over historically partisan issues in order to set change in motion. Say, the nexus between (1) prudent regulation of hazardous waste disposal; (2) responsible fisheries management; (3) affirmative action to combat global warming; (4) massive desalination/infrastructure and irrigation projects; (5) REORGANIZING debt at every level of government and providing non-recourse loans for small businesses by giving the State a limited partner interest in such investments with a preferred return. Stated differently, by infusing the Treasury and Several States with vast amounts $30 trillion of printed money, the US can become self-sufficent and no objections will be made insofar that the world economy depends on a healthy US and vice versa. New ideas are required to meet the challenges of tomorrow. If the opposition demands "no new taxes", it is time for a radical paradigm shift in order to change the course of HIstory. The benefits of REORGANIZING debts and creating jobs through surplus will trickle down to every level of society and, indeed, the owlr that contains us.

"Truth fears no trial." - Thomas Fuller, MD

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

My guess that he will thank the majority of voters who gave him a vote of confidence and that he will work for all Americans in his second term.  This inauguration is in some ways more significant than the first.  This time he is more humble, more confident, more secure in his role.  The Republican and Blue Democrat dogs can only watch with their tails between their hind legs.  It will be better than the Super Bowl to me.

paulejb
paulejb

Barack Obama should say that it was all a mistake and that he and Joe will resign.

thriver
thriver

Maybe he should remind Americans that we were sorta the first big democracy and lots of folks in the world look up to us. And maybe remind folks that the birth of democracy came from the "Enlightenment" which was about socratic thinking, critical thinking, debate, persuasion, law - not screaming, suggesting people leave the country if they disagree with us or threatening violence.

Maybe he could remind Americans that these folks believed an education was important, reading books, understanding history, thinking critically about clericalism.

And might I suggest that he mention that democracy doesn't function very well if health and education are the last on the priority list since you can't exactly have an enlightened electorate who walks to the polls if they are all sick and ignorant.

Sue_N
Sue_N

Wait. Katy, you talked to Reagan speechwriters, but you didn't go to Our Lady of the Dolphins? That's just wrong.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

What a weird thread for the TPers to infest. 

debtgo4
debtgo4

My fellow sheeple.  I want to personally thank you for believing the lies I fed you during my first term as dictator & chief.  I mean president and chief!  (Where is my teleprompter...razzle razzle)  Its been a long and hard road to tyranny.  The job of trampling your rights and shredding the Constitution has not been easy.  It was difficult instituting so many of my draconian laws and executive fiats, but I digress, it was the previous dictators fault not my own.  I did not add 5 trillion dollars to the national debt.  I did not just pass a 2% social security tax on the entire middle class.  I did not pass the NDAA that ensures indefinite detention for American citizens.  I want to assure all gun owners that my intentions are pure and that the 23 executive fiats and the assault weapons ban will not in anyway destroy your 2nd amendment rights.  I hereby so solemnly swear these words are true so help me because my hand is starting to burn on this Bible.

echoglide
echoglide

Look how well Prohibition worked because ordinary Americans were against drinking alcohol, and the war on drugs was a good fight, except the government could do nothing to stop its use in the homes and schools of America, so I made an executive decision and threw in the towel after the voters in Colorado and Washington legalized pot. But, I stand firm on banning guns because 53% of Americans will become criminals instantly and our legal system has no chance of enforcing these laws. What do the voters want hear?  Anything but the economy!  

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

To quote Brick:

"I DON'T KNOW WHAT WE'RE YELLING ABOUT!"

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

All humor aside (this is really dangerous...), banning guns to cure our society would be like banning political parties to cure our polarization. 


Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@paulejb No mistake, cupcake.  The American voters gave Willard and the little twerp Ayn Rand fanboy a massive wedgie on election day.  No mistake.

Diecash1
Diecash1

@Paul,nnto WTH?  Just got around to looking at it and there's nearly 300 comments?  I suppose it's hard to tell what sets off teh crazy.  I guess they're still sore about the election.  Waaaaah!

grape_crush
grape_crush

> ... my hand is starting to burn on this Bible.

Qua'ran. Wingnut mythology has Obama as being Muslim, not Christian. No way he should be swearing on a Bible.

Dammit, another prime cut of fringe-y goodness up until the very end.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@debtgo4 I keep reading that as 'executive farts'... lol... about passed my rum & coke through my nose

crossinthesky
crossinthesky

@ArxFerrum Banning Guns is just the beginning of enslavement for the american people. The NWO has a far more sinister plan for the whole world.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@ArxFerrum Or like dumbing down education and trying to teach creationism because some one belief  in a book of fable is threatened.

Urbanitus
Urbanitus

@ArxFerrum I keep seeing this "banning guns" talking point.  I have yet to hear anyone actually call for a wholesale ban on guns, and no one will.

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@Diecash1 @Paul,nnto Scrolling through I think you may be correct. 

Often illiterate, angry, delusional, and above all afraid.  

Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

@Sue_N @Paul,nnto God love 'em, they have a lot of reasons to be unhappy. Just never the ones they cite. 

grape_crush
grape_crush

It's a line fromthe movie Anchorman

MementoMori
MementoMori

@crossinthesky @ArxFerrum I just realized I'm old enough to remember when these guys were all following Lyndon LaRouche instead Ron Paul.

Those were the days...

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@DonQuixotic @ArxFerrum Bovine excrement! There are many who would... just as there are many on the opposite pole that would like to take target practice on their opposites. 

outsider
outsider

Yeah, but if you don't scream about banning guns, then the debate. Becomes reasonble - can't have that! Come on, you're messing with the script..

.@Urbanitus @ArxFerrum

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@Urbanitus @ArxFerrum LOL! No one has suggested banning political parties, either. It is a confined context scenario with a comparison for point. 

grape_crush
grape_crush

A grammatically-errant "I know you are but what am I" followed by a descent into gibberish. Too funny, JJ!

Awesome. *laughing, wipes tear from eye*

jjparkerjim121
jjparkerjim121

@grape_crush You would  know better than most whom the homeschool dropout follow. i can tell by your anoying Clererish comments!

grape_crush
grape_crush

Glennbeckistan? For real?

I don't think he's describe it using a word like 'commune', however.

grape_crush
grape_crush

LaRouche, then Ron Paul...who are the homeschool dropouts following these days? Alex Jones?

grape_crush
grape_crush

Sadly, I get that reference. Sad day when WWE bought the other majors.

Or not so sad, actually. There's some parallel between watching pro wrestlers' bluster and blog commenters' bloviation.

AfGuy
AfGuy

I'm about to mess with your minds....

I believe in a Divine Creation... but I also believe that we evolve and adapt to our environment. And I also respect your right to believe otherwise.

If you need me to fit in either the round or square holes, I'll try to shave off some of the edges and corners. Gonna be a tight, awkward fit, regardless.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@grape_crush  Was just thinking yesterday how nice it would be if science could prove there is no heaven so people would start treating each other nicer knowing that there is nothing to look forward to, enjoy our lives while we can.  Wishful thinking I know.  Proving there is no heaven would pretty much destroy religion, which I am pretty ok with.  Aliens with 8 arms would do the same thing.    On the other hand, you do not find many atheists in a fox hole.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@grape_crush No, regardless of how perfect any science or any faith holds itself, it has NO right to impose itself on anyone. 

MementoMori
MementoMori

@ArxFerrum @MementoMori @mantisdragon91 All the faith in the world will not make 2 plus 2 equal 5. That's the difference between faith and science. Science is based on provable fact. Faith is whatever you want it to be, regardless of truth.

grape_crush
grape_crush

> People are going to believe as they choose and no one has the credentials to judge the next. 

Yes to the first part, no to the second.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@MementoMori @ArxFerrum @mantisdragon91 Evolution is not in doubt  Neither is devolution. But we still don't know exactly how man happened... and for that matter, we don't have more than a theory on how the domestic dog somehow evolved from wolves.

It';s still all a shot in the dark. Faith has the edge in argument because they don't require the proof... because it is based on faith. Science  on the other hand, can't disprove God because they can't prove anything does not exist. So... the creation vs. evolution debate is really pointless.

People are going to believe as they choose and no one has the credentials to judge the next. 

grape_crush
grape_crush

/shorter

"Science doesn't have all the answers, so follow religion instead, which pretends that it does."

MementoMori
MementoMori

@ArxFerrum @MementoMori @mantisdragon91  But we can prove evolution exists. 

When they discover the world is really flat, not round like all those "scientists" have been trying to tell us, THEN I'll stop listening to them. Until then, I trust the evidence at hand

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

@MementoMori @ArxFerrum @mantisdragon91 

One last note on science...

Shortly after the Wright Brothers had demonstrated their flying machine at Kitty Hawk, the Royal Academy of Science stated firmly that powered, heavier than air flight, was impossible.

The thing with science is that... every time they think they have something nailed down, something else comes along and pries the nail out and sticks in in their foot.

Who knows what scientific facts today, will be the laugh of another generation.

PS - Scientific truth: It is impossible to prove that something does not exist.

Diecash1
Diecash1

@ArxFerrum @DonQuixotic Feel free to substantiate that claim as virtually no one in power, be it in Congress or at the state level, is talking about banning guns.  Claiming that there is a movement to do so is ridiculous.