Muted Expectations for Inaugural

Change definitely NOT in the air

Larry Sabato (Jan. 17, 2013)

With the constitutionally-mandated presidential oath-taking falling on a Sunday this year, the country will follow tradition and have a private ceremony at the White House on Sunday, followed by the usual public spectacular on Monday at the Capitol.

Even with a double-dose of oath-taking, few sense much excitement. It has always been thus for second terms. We know the president, we know most of his team, and we know the issues -- more or less. Change is most definitely not in the air, especially after an election that -- while Democratic in character -- was status quo in result. And everyone is exhausted from the fiscal cliff face-off, probably an omen of the dispiriting, polarizing, poisonous debates to come.

About the only surprise will be the contents of President Obama’s second inaugural speech. Four years ago, we offered an essay on inaugural addresses (reprinted below). In our view, there had been only two great addresses, Lincoln’s second and Kennedy’s only. Yes, there were famous lines produced by some others (for example, FDR’s, “All we have to fear is fear itself”). But by and large, a reading of all of the addresses at one sitting brought on a long winter’s nap; the writing was pedestrian, the topics often picayune, the delivery in the television age usually falling flat.

It was surprising to some that Barack Obama’s first inaugural address fit the mold. Not a line of it is particularly remembered or oft-quoted, and it lacked the majesty of many of his campaign speeches. Still, the emotions of that day were overwhelming. Few Americans probably imagined they would live to see an African American elected president, so soon at least. The massive turnout of citizens of all stripes flooded Washington in an unprecedented way.

Assuming that Chief Justice John Roberts gets the wording of the oath correct this time, the news next Monday will have to be generated by Obama’s inaugural plans and proposals. Presidents usually leave most specifics to the State of the Union speech, the traditional laundry list of agenda items, but maybe not this time. The economy, debt, guns, immigration and terrorism are all due for emphasis; could one or more spawn a headline, or better yet, a theme?

A second-term president is on legacy patrol. Which predecessor(s) will Obama mention? To what ends? Which phrase or sentence will Obama hope to make his signature for the next four years -- or maybe for history?

Clare Boothe Luce, the famous ambassador and congresswoman, and wife of Time publisher Henry Luce, used to tell presidents that, at most, they only got one line each in history. George Washington was the father of the country, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, FDR brought the United States through the Great Depression and World War II.

Is President Obama’s line already written, that he was our first African-American leader? Or is there something broader and bigger? Obama’s second inaugural address is a prominent opportunity to stake his claim.

-Larry Sabato is Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics

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