Will Obama Go for Greatness This Time?

Straight Up: Forget policy. His inaugural address must signal that he'll leave a lasting legacy.

Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images News)
Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address (Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images News)

(The Root) — On the day we officially observe Martin Luther King Day, we will also publicly inaugurate Barack Obama as president of the United States for the second time. (He will actually take the oath of office the day before in order to meet constitutional requirements.) Many people, issues and agendas will be clamoring for attention in Obama’s second inaugural address. Personally, I have less a specific policy agenda in mind and more a grand ambition: I want to hear Obama signal that he will seek greatness in his second term. 

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying his first term was somehow a letdown. I should not be counted among Obama’s variously myopic or narcissistic critics on the left. And I certainly do not stand with his hopelessly out-of-step critics on the right. Obama accomplished many important things in his first term.

At the top of the list are ending the war in Iraq as promised, a sensible economic agenda that included the financial bailout, Wall Street reform, saving the auto industry and other efforts to stop the economic hemorrhaging he faced when he took the oath four years ago. To this list I would also add the Affordable Health Care Act (or Obamacare). One could cite many other things, such as killing Osama bin Laden, the Lilly Ledbetter equal-pay legislation, ending “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” appointing the first Latina to the U.S. Supreme Court and more.

Many others think that now in particular is the moment for Obama to unveil an agenda for black America. I’ve heard it said that he should come out advocating a major assault on poverty, a special urban agenda and perhaps even a renewed defense of affirmative action. These are all worthy policy goals, but I don’t see any of it as appropriate in a second inaugural (or perhaps even his next State of the Union address).

I have said before on The Root that Obama has governed in a very professorial manner. His political style has been one of doing the responsible thing, in a reasonable way, all premised on the right reasons. But this approach has neither created a well-defined legacy; nor can it sustain a claim to having risen to the great defining challenges of these times. 

Given a House of Representatives controlled by the opposition party and a Republican leadership beholden to its most extreme and irrational elements, promising another four years of levelheaded bipartisanship is not enough. The president must tell the American people what long-standing values and principles and interests are now at stake and signal with clarity what his direction will be in moving confidently into the future, even if, by implication, it means that he will have to drag a recalcitrant Congress along with him. 

Reading an inaugural address can be an inspiring or deeply boring exercise. The best and most memorable inaugural addresses hit three marks: They are brief, they speak in the voice of the singular leader of the United States of America (not merely the victor of an election or representative of one party) and they forge a sense of common moral purpose in the face of the great challenges of the times. 

George Washington’s second inaugural speech was the shortest, only 135 words. Obama will have to do more. The longest inaugural address was given by the ill-fated William Henry Harrison in 1841, who talked for one hour and 45 minutes (more than 8,000 words) despite drenching rain — and subsequently developed pneumonia and died weeks later. This was clearly too much.

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, which many regard as his most important, was just over 700 words. He spoke frankly about the fundamental clash and destructive war over slavery that had defined his first term and called for Americans to “finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.” The challenges of Obama’s times are at once less dire but also more murky and confused.