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INAUGURATION 2013: In second-term speech, Obama as orator faces test

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
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U.S President Barack Obama waves after giving his inaugural address four years ago. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The crowds will be smaller and President Barack Obama will be grayer when he takes the stage on Monday to deliver his second inaugural address. Will the orator in chief reclaim his mantle of eloquence with a big, bold speech? Or will he play it safe and keep it short?

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday Obama is still working on his address, and that he had no preview of what the president might say.

Obama, Carney said, is “very appreciative of the fact that the American people have given him the opportunity to deliver a second inaugural address. He takes very seriously speeches of this kind and is very engaged in the process."

Four years ago, the country had outsize expectations for Obama's first inaugural. The president's reputation for eloquence is so integral to his public image that even his political opponents are often the first to bring it up. It's also a part of his origin story: Thanks to a speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama rocketed from Illinois state senator to presidential contender.

But years in the Oval Office have somewhat tempered Obama's rhetorical gifts, as ribbon cuttings and other ho-drum presidential speechifying haven't ever risen to the heights of the 2004 convention address or even his well-received speech on race during the 2008 campaign. Pundits widely panned Obama's speech at this year's Democratic National Convention—especially compared to Bill Clinton's largely ad-libbed endorsement of Obama's record and Democratic policies one night earlier.

Unfortunately, second inaugurals in general are not known for being the best opportunity for a rhetorical triumph.

With the intimidating exception of Abraham Lincoln—whose second-term speech, against the backdrop of the long Civil War, is considered among the best in U.S. history—weary presidents elected to second terms rarely make history or wow the crowd. Most of the memorable inaugural lines—such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"—came from the lips of newly elected presidents eager to introduce themselves to the nation for the first time as commander in chief.

No one knows the challenges of crafting an exciting and inspiring second-term inaugural address better than presidential speechwriters.

"'Let us begin' is always more inspiring than 'let us continue,'" said Jeff Shesol, a former Clinton speechwriter. "This is a presidency at midstream, and it's not the beginning of a whole new era, which some of us felt that it could be four years ago."

Ken Khachigian, who crafted President Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address, put it this way: "Second inaugurals are generally little remembered and long forgotten."

Even so, the inaugural offers an opportunity for a president to rise above the day-to-day squabbles of Washington and lay out a vision for the country, even if the constituents who have re-elected him think they already know all he has to offer.

"The test of a truly successful inaugural address … is whether it manages to speak to its moment and speak to history at the same time," says Shesol.

Obama used his first inaugural, in 2009, to call for a "new era of responsibility" in the face of the nation's economic crisis. This time, speechwriters say there are some pitfalls he should avoid.

The president should keep it simple, brief and uncontroversial, Khachigian said.

"Keep it short, 10 to 12 minutes if he could do it," Khachigian said. "The longer it is, the more he's going to be explaining his first term."

The inaugural should be about setting a general "framework," not getting into policy specifics, which should be saved for the State of the Union address, Khachigian said.

Obama is likely bring up controversial subjects such as gun control, immigration reform and some of the battles he's facing with the Republican-controlled Congress over taxes and spending. The speechwriters say he faces a challenge in how to do so without sounding partisan.

"I would advise him not to poke his opponents in the eye, which he has a tendency to do," Khachigian said. Calling out Republicans specifically would "just cause more bitterness and anger and division," he said.

Added Shesol, "I can't imagine that he's going to be getting anywhere near the debt ceiling in the speech." Shesol agreed Obama must ensure that his speech not be called partisan.

But Shesol says the president can mention the bitter divisions in the Capitol obliquely, by calling out "those who would stand in the way of progress for the sake of political gain." Otherwise, Shesol said, he'd be ignoring the elephant in the room.

Ted Widmer, another speechwriter for Clinton, agreed that Obama can bring up gridlock in Congress without being divisive.

"Can he remind us of how we've gotten out of gridlock in the past and how we've summoned great political will to do things like create the Constitution or prevail during the Civil War ... and fight two World Wars and send Americans to the moon?" Widmer said. "Those were the great challenges of the past, and if he can remind us how Americans came together to do those great things, it would be really exciting."

But the speechwriters also said it's important not to over-promise.

In his first inaugural speech, Obama said the nation had "come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." Anyone who's glanced at Washington over the past four years may have noticed that petty grievances have not actually disappeared.

That means Obama can't suggest he thinks the chasm between Democrats and Republicans will magically be closed in his second term. "I think if he sets the bar too high, he'll be reminded of it as time goes on," Khachigian said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ken Khachigian collaborated on President Ronald Reagan's second inaugural address. In fact, he helped write Reagan's first inaugural.

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