Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Obama's speech: Learning from Lincoln, Wilson, FDR

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:06 PM EST, Sun January 20, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Second term inaugural addresses are always a challenge
  • He says the public has had four years to make a judgment about the president
  • Obama can learn from second term speeches of Lincoln, Wilson, FDR
  • Zelizer says they did a good job of unifying America and sketching vision of the future

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

(CNN) -- The second inaugural address is always more difficult than the first. When a president-elect first steps onto the national stage, he still enjoys a certain degree of innocence and hope. Americans are waiting to see if the new president will be different. When a new president delivers his speech, voters don't yet have a record that might make them cynical.

But by the second term, voters are familiar, and often tired, with the occupant of the White House. Even though they liked him more than his opponents, the president has usually been through some pretty tough battles and his limitations have been exposed. It becomes much harder to deliver big promises, when the people watching have a much clearer sense of your limitations and of the strength of your opponents.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

So President Barack Obama faces a big test when he appears before the nation Monday.

Opinion: Presidents shouldn't swear in on a Bible

Obama now is Washington, and no longer someone who will be able to shake up the way Washington works. Voters believe that Congress is dysfunctional and have little confidence that legislators will respond to his proposals.

Overseas, the instability and violence in the Middle East has shaken the confidence of many Americans that Obama can achieve the kind of transformative change he promised back in 2009.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Obama, who is a student of history, can look back at some past second inaugural addresses if he wants guidance. Three of the best of these addresses offer a roadmap.

Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865: The strongest was from Lincoln, who gave his talk amid the brutality of the Civil War but chose to stress the theme of healing and unity, Lincoln gave a masterful performance that offered inspiration and encouragement for the reunification of the nation. Lincoln famously said: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Rather than boasting of military victory or threatening Southern forces, he stepped outside the battle to offer the nation, as a whole, the path forward.

1945: FDR's simple inaugural ceremony
1961: JFK's famous inaugural address
1981: Reagan's return to optimism
1933: FDR projects optimism in speech

Woodrow Wilson, March 5, 1917: Although Wilson had run on a campaign to keep America out of world war, he was aware that such intervention was inevitable. During his second inaugural address, Wilson took the opportunity to start preparing the nation for what was about to come. He told America to think about the global responsibilities it had to accept, even if much of the nation was not prepared to do so. "We are provincials no longer," he said, "The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back."

Opinion: Why 'Hail to the Chief' remains unsung

Franklin Roosevelt, January 20, 1937: Roosevelt gave a rousing performance that outlined the fundamental vision which shaped the wide array of policies he had put forward in his first term. While many people had criticized FDR for lacking any ideology and for being a pragmatist without principle, in his second address he explained the rationale behind his actions: "I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." For Democrats, the speech remains a powerful defense of government and the rationale behind his program.

To replicate some of this success, Obama will need to figure out how to inspire a nation that is frustrated by the gridlock of Washington and the laggard state of the economy and worried about instability overseas.

Obama can learn from all three of these presidents.

Like Wilson, he can talk to Americans about goals they should aspire to achieve, ways in which the country can accept new obligations in a changing world.

Like Lincoln, he can urge the nation to move beyond the discord and division that have characterized political debate in the past four years.

Finally, like Roosevelt, he can use his speech to provide some of the justification and outlook that has shaped his policies. This would undercut the ability of Republicans to define his policies for him, as has been the case for much of his first term, and motivate supporters who have often felt that Obama remained too much of a mystery.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
2013 Presidential Inauguration
updated 9:53 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
It was a seemingly wistful moment at the halfway mark of his presidency, before the celebratory parade and the evening's galas.
updated 6:50 PM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
CNN contributors and analysts offered these assessments of the 44th's president's inauguration.
updated 5:18 PM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Here's a look at the inauguration from your perspective, submitted via iReport.
updated 5:34 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
As the nation celebrated the start of another term for President Obama, Republican congressional leaders had a muted, bipartisan response to his second inaugural address.
updated 11:23 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
The alternating red and blue yard signs are long gone, and people here have gone back to familiar rhythms of life.
updated 10:00 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
President Obama began his second term with a "keeping it real" moment courtesy of youngest daughter Sasha.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
What a difference four years makes. It's a tale of two terms, marked by battles to come and tasks not yet completed from 4 years ago.
updated 10:11 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
Richard Blanco grew up a Cuban immigrant and gay, and says it speaks to America's strengths that he was chosen to read a poem to the nation.
updated 9:49 AM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spent the evening at more intimate affairs: 30,000 guests at two inaugural balls.
President Barack Obama said Monday in his inaugural speech that the nation must come together to meet the challenges of the day, saying: "We are made for this moment, and we will seize it - so long as we seize it together."
updated 12:07 PM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Hear President Obama recite the oath of office at his second inauguration.
updated 12:03 PM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Vice President Joe Biden takes his public oath of office for a second term.
updated 1:48 PM EST, Tue January 22, 2013
An American flag waves at the U.S. Capitol building on Sunday, January 20, as Washington prepares for President Barack Obama's second inauguration. CNN brings you the best images from Washington.
updated 12:43 PM EST, Mon January 21, 2013
Watch presidents from the last 100 years take the oath of office on inauguration day.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT