The inaugural address is a big deal. More than just a victory speech, it’s a chance for the incoming president to recalibrate the country’s trajectory. Over the last two centuries, it’s been a platform for some of the greatest speeches ever – and for some that we’d be better off forgetting. In his first try, President Barack Obama was somewhere in the middle. Below are four basic elements Obama will need if he is to make his second inaugural address a memorable one.
1. Obama should define the "us."
The most important part of an inaugural address is to give Americans a shared identity and purpose. In his first inaugural address, the newly elected president made this appeal through the ending of partisanship. While we may see a nod to such an end, it’s likely the emphasis this time will be on the theme of middle-class empowerment that was the backbone of his 2012 election message.
2. Obama should define the "them."
Of course, every good political narrative needs a bad guy, and the best way to bring people together is to give them a common enemy. The president’s next objective should be to define the “them.” In doing so, it’s important that he not be so specific that he isolates large parts of the population, or those he will have to do business with.
In 1935, FDR did this masterfully by indicting the banking class without actually naming names. He gave the American people a culprit for the country’s ills, but allowed the alleged perpetrators to save face. Obama’s most likely target will be recalcitrant legislators who have chosen again and again to hold the nation’s middle-class hostage as a means of protecting the interests of the rich.
3. Next should come a call to action.
In the past, Obama has struggled with asking people to do something specific. Despite being a former community organizer, he is still a big idea person, and that’s the way he tends to frame things. If he wants to succeed in getting a divided country behind him, he has to give people a way to participate that is meaningful, achievable and specific.
4. The final aspect is the “wow” moment.
This is where Obama can hit the American people over the head with something they’ve never seen before. One of the best examples in recent memory is from President Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. Although seemingly routine now, it was the first time the TV cameras moved away from the president, in this occasion panning out across the national mall, eventually as far as Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery. In the eye of the viewer, it was a magical moment that highlighted Reagan’s call to move power away from Washington.
For all his notoriety as a great orator, Obama’s first inaugural speech fell flat. He was overly excited, lacking the poise and confidence of a U.S. president. But as we’ve seen time and time again, Obama is a man who learns from his mistakes and rarely makes them twice. So look for him to be much improved in this go around, and to deliver a speech that will be remembered for years to come.