As Barak Obama prepares for his second inaugural address Monday, Jan. 21, he faces a nation still bitterly divided over his “legitimacy,” suggests Wayne Fields, PhD, an expert on the history of presidential rhetoric and speechmaking at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Obama will offer his inaugural address to a nation in which a large and vocal percentage of the population are not just disappointed, but almost furious, that he’s been re-elected,” Fields says. “This has been fed in some part by the pre-election rhetoric of places like Fox News, which suggested that Romney was sure to win the election, leaving many of their viewers to assume that Obama’s re-election must have been somehow corrupt.”
Fields is the Lynne Cooper Harvey Distinguished Professor of English, American Literature and American Culture Studies at WUSTL. His book, Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence, examines the use of rhetoric in presidential speeches, from declarations of candidacy to nomination acceptances, inaugural addresses, state-of-the-union speeches, declarations of war, executive farewells and other special addresses.
“What is unique about Obama’s situation is that he’s still different than any president we’ve ever had,” Fields says. “He’s not anything like the people of power who have previously controlled who gets elected in this nation. Race has been a big issue in his campaigns and his first term in office, and it will continue to be a big issue in how he shapes his message to the nation.”
While many historians say that a president’s second inaugural address tends to be unimportant and soon forgotten, Fields suggests that Obama has more at stake. Unlike Obama’s first inaugural address, when his presidency was brand new and filled with unknowns, Obama’s second inaugural comes after an often-divisive four years in office.
“Much of Obama’s Republican opposition has tried to portray his first election as an aberration, a mistake that would be corrected in the next election,” Fields says. “That didn’t happen, but those who dislike him have had four years for their distrust to fester and grow more bitter. In many ways, he faces a nation that has grown much more divided than it was at the time of his first election. The inaugural address gives him to opportunity to declare that his election was not a fluke, that he’s not going away anytimesoon, as some had hoped.”
But like Abraham Lincoln, who presided over one of the nation’s most divisive periods, Obama’s appeals for national unity must be shrewdly crafted to avoid further alienating his opposition while, at the same time, laying out at least some framework for consensus on controversial issues, such as gun control and immigration.
As Fields points out, Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses served as bookends for his evolving attitudes toward issues of race, equality and slavery.
Before the Civil War, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln resolved to keep the North and South together. During the war, in his famed Gettysburg Address, he noted the importance of fighting for the principal of equality. After the war, and during his second inaugural, he explained why the North suffered so much death when it was fighting for equality — for good — while the South fought for slavery.
Lincoln’s first inaugural asserted that we are one people, North and South, and the second asserted that we are one people, black and white, Fields suggests.
Unlike past presidents, who might have used a second inaugural as an opportunity to lay out a bold new shift in direction or strategy, Obama’s options are somewhat constrained by the intense 24/7 nature of the modern new cycle, one in which a president’s every utterance is archived, re-analyzed and often re-purposed for fresh political attacks.
Unfortunately, for Obama’s sake, suggests Fields, the ability to shift positions after taking in new information is too often seen as “flip-flopping” in today’s political arena.