The challenges of the second-term inaugural address
Martin Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, has authored or edited more than a dozen books on presidential rhetoric. Medhurst spoke to the Trib regarding the dynamics of delivering a second presidential inaugural address, as Barack Obama will do on Jan. 21.
Q: What challenges exist for presidents delivering their second inaugural speech?
A: First, they aren't starting with a blank slate. They have to take into consideration all that happened in their first term. You can't just speak as though you are a virgin because you are not, and that's a big constraint.
Second, the situation is almost always worse going into a second term than it is going into a first, and you have to figure out how to deal with that in one way or another.
In (Obama's) case, basic gridlock between the executive and legislative branches is a fact of life. It can't be ignored, so he's going to have to deal with that.
Third, if you are an eloquent president, as I think Obama is, the second inaugural presents a big challenge because if you've given a really good first inaugural — which I think he did — that sets the standard. And it's hard to jump higher than your highest.
Q: Have any presidents taken their game to that level? Who has stood out as being particularly eloquent the second time around?
A: Well, of course, the very best was Lincoln, whose second inaugural was perhaps the greatest speech of any kind. He sort of set a standard that was impossible for anyone else to approach. But there have been very few really great ones. Perhaps the one that comes closest would be (Franklin Delano Roosevelt's) second in 1937. We were in the middle of the Great Depression. FDR delivered a message of hope and of looking forward, in language that was memorable and spoke to the moment.
Q: Conversely, which presidents dropped the ball in their second inaugural speech?
A: Of the 20th-century presidents, it's not so much that their second inaugurals were terrible, it's just that they are not memorable. They don't really establish a theme for the second term, so for the most part they are entirely forgettable. Woodrow Wilson's was marginally better, but he was so constrained by the moment, by the nation being on the brink of war, so the speech has a somber tone to it.
Dwight Eisenhower's was marginally better, it does at least have a thematic to it, which is that we have to be willing to pay the price of peace even when it's a steep price.
Q: Has the importance of inaugural speeches been diminished by the fact that we're in a 24-hour news cycle and whatever a president says likely will be quickly forgotten?
A: Well, they certainly have more competition for (people's attention). But I think inaugural addresses, whether first or second, always have been under the obligation that if they are going to be memorable, they have to be memorable in one of two ways.
First, they have to have a new idea, an idea that is fresh and different and forward looking.
Second, they have to express that idea in language that is unusual.
Frankly, most addresses just don't measure up to those two criteria. Consequently, whether it's the next day or the next week, they are (quickly) forgotten.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org.