Advice for President Obama's second inaugural: Be eloquent and brief, says former speechwriter

U.S President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address during his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America on the West Front of the Capitol January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC.
U.S President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address during his inauguration as the 44th President of the United States of America on the West Front of the Capitol January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images

On Monday, President Barack Obama will stand at the U.S. Capitol and speak to a giant crowd of nearly a million people and a worldwide TV audience.

Having won a second term, he is at the peak of his power – a place reached only by the five presidents in the Nuclear Age who won an additional four years in office: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

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What President Obama says from that podium will guide American policy, change world history, and secure his legacy.

Here’s a brief review of the last five second inaugural addresses, plus advice for President Obama about what he should say. Our guide is Cal State Long Beach professor Craig Smith, the head of the university’s Center for First Amendment Studies and a former speechwriter for President Gerald Ford.

Eisenhower Second Inaugural: January 21, 1957

An inaugural address, says Smith, “doesn’t have to have specifics. It’s more about values and goals than it is about specifics.”

For Dwight Eisenhower in 1957, the values and goals were summed up in the title of his Second Inaugural Address: “The Price of Peace.”

Smith notes that just before Eisenhower’s re-election in 1956, the Soviets crushed the Hungarian uprising, and the British, French and Israelis fought with Egypt over control of the Suez Canal. Both crises had threatened to explode into wider war.

The general who’d led the Allies to victory in Europe in World War II was now leading the U.S. in a dangerous and nuclear-armed world. Eisenhower knew the stakes.

“We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom. And now, as in no other age, we seek it because we have been warned, by the power of modern weapons, that peace may be the only climate possible for human life itself.”

Smith notes that Eisenhower, in talking about peace, also acknowledged the need for the United Nations.

“You have the president strongly endorsing the U.N. in his foreign policy. And then he picks up on that in his inaugural, showing that he was no isolationist. He says at one point, ‘No people can live to itself alone.’ And I think that was really important in the Eisenhower administration.”

Nixon second inaugural: January 20, 1973

Sixteen years later, Eisenhower’s former vice-president – Richard Nixon – delivered his second inaugural address after his re-election.

Like Eisenhower, recent world events informed the speech. Five days before the inauguration, Nixon announced the U.S. was suspending attacks on North Vietnam. A week after the inauguration, the U.S. signs the Paris Peace Accords to end American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Smith says Nixon, like Eisenhower, spoke about peace abroad and prosperity at home, with the initial focus on peace.

“He begins by talking about a new era of peace in the world,” says Smith. “He talks about his missions to Peking (Beijing) and his missions to Moscow. He talks about the structure of peace. And so that’s all in the front end of his speech, and so that’s his main concern.”

“The peace we seek in the world is not the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come. It is important that we understand both the necessity and the limitations of America’s role in maintaining that peace. Unless we in America work to preserve the peace, there will be no peace. Unless we in America work to preserve freedom, there will be no freedom.”

Among the five second inaugural addresses since World War II, Nixon’s is the one that used the word “peace” most often: 19 times.

Reagan second inaugural: January 21, 1985

Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural was delivered on a bitterly cold day in January 1985. The temps were so cold that Reagan spoke not to a giant crowd outdoors but to a much smaller gathering inside in the Capitol Rotunda. Smith was part of the CBS News coverage that day.

“It is interesting that the speech has more detail than many of the other Inaugurals, and particularly Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s,” says Smith. “He talks about simplifying our tax system, making it more fair, bringing the rates down for all who work, creating a security shield that would destroy nuclear weapons.”

“It reads in part like a State of the Union address instead of an Inaugural,” says Smith.

But, as George W. Bush would in his Second Inaugural 20 years later, Reagan spent time on the theme of freedom:

“America must remain freedom’s staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally. And it is the world’s only hope, to conquer poverty and preserve peace. Every blow we inflict against poverty will be a blow against its dark allies of oppression and war. Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace.”

Clinton second inaugural: January 20, 1997

For Smith, the Clinton second inaugural is the weakest of these five.

“It didn’t move me at the time,” he says.

Smith notes there was a point at which Clinton responded to the memorable line from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”  

“We have resolved for our time a great debate over the role of government. Today we can declare: Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution. We—the American people—we are the solution. Our founders understood that well and gave us a democracy strong enough to endure for centuries, flexible enough to face our common challenges and advance our common dreams in each new day.”

Smith says Clinton tried to “meet the moment” at the beginning of the speech by talking about how this was the last Inaugural of the 20th century.

But then, he says, “It gets kind of trite: ‘We must keep our old democracy forever young.’ ‘This is the American century.’ I just wasn’t moved by that.”

Bush second inaugural: January 20, 2005

With George W. Bush in 2005, Smith says there’s a return to the Reagan theme of freedom around the world:

“All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country. The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: ‘Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.’”    

Bush uses the word “freedom” 27 times – almost as often as Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Clinton combined.

“I think the more concerned they are with foreign policy, the more concerned they are with freedom and liberty,” says Smith. “The more they’re concerned with domestic policy, they’re not looking at (freedom and liberty) so much as they’re looking at welfare: Am I my brother’s keeper? How do we take care of ourselves?”

Smith says a president focused on domestic policy is likely to use the word “community” more. Clinton used it twice; Nixon and Bush once; Eisenhower and Reagan not at all.

Obama second inaugural: January 21, 2013

The challenge for President Obama, says Smith, is to rise above his first inaugural speech. It’s a difficult task.

“With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, I can think of no president whose Second Inaugural was as good as his first,” says Smith. He recommends that President Obama use speechwriting tricks to make his words memorable: more metaphors, more similes, more balances.

Smith points to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech.

“We remember what people say when they put their words into antitheses and balances,” says Smith. “Kennedy’s ‘Ask not’ is the most profound, but another one we remember from Kennedy is ‘we should never negotiate in fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.’”

Repetition and simple words can work to memorable effect, says Smith, just as Franklin Roosevelt did in his First Inaugural.

“‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ There are no big words in that sentence. What sustains the sentence is repetition,” he says.

But however President Obama arranges the words, Smith recommends that he be brief.

“Some people go on too long,” he says. “In an age when we have shorter attention spans, this would be the time to head toward The Gettysburg Address rather than the long Clinton 51-issues-in-51-minutes address.”