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U.S. President Barack Obama. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
U.S. President Barack Obama. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

DAVID SHRIBMAN

A guide to the second inaugural address Add to ...

In a private ceremony on Sunday, followed by a public observance today, Barack Obama will take an ancient oath of office and begin his second term. American civic life has few rituals, but a presidential inauguration is perhaps its most sacred: a hushed public pledge, a speech that reaches for rhetorical heights, a raucous parade, sparkling formal balls.

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Four years ago, the inauguration of Mr. Obama, the first black president, was as much a moment of contemplation as of celebration. This inauguration, conducted amid an economic recession that still hasn’t receded, is almost an afterthought. The great hopes for a president who seemed to possess political stardust – and who won a Nobel Peace Prize only eight months into his administration – have been replaced by hard, stubborn realities. The hope this time is that the second term will be better than the fraught first one.

“Four years ago, everybody was thrilled and excited and exuberant,” former vice-president Walter Mondale, himself an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1984, said in an interview. “This time, going to the inauguration is kind of like a duty. But at events like this, the president rarely disappoints.”

The big moment, of course, is the inaugural address. It’s the overture to every presidential term, reflecting the times in which it’s delivered and the character of the chief executive who delivers it. Here’s a viewers’ guide to Mr. Obama’s second inaugural address:

Is this a speech of broad themes or small specifics?

Presidents sometimes use their inaugurals to set a tone – of determination, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933 (“nothing to fear but fear itself”), or optimism, as Ronald Reagan did in 1981 (“we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us”). They sometimes use them to set forth their vision of the country, as George W. Bush did in 2001 when he spoke of “civility, courage, compassion and character.”

But this is a time when there’s scant agreement among Americans on the broad principles, red-toothed disagreement on important fundamentals, and the widespread view that this President shies away from specifics. So listen to see whether Mr. Obama singles out issues such as gun control in the wake of the school killings in Connecticut or budget cuts in anticipation of the new fight brewing on Capitol Hill. No word in an inaugural address is selected in haste, or wasted. Every syllable matters, and is parsed.

Does the president sow in the American conscience a thought that will not die?

Thomas Jefferson did in 1800 when he opened his address with the rhetoric of conciliation: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” John Kennedy produced multiple memorable lines (“now the trumpet summons us again,” and “here on earth God’s work must truly be our own”) and one challenge that’s so well known that merely posing the first two words (“ask not …”) seals the speech’s place in posterity. On Inauguration Day, the president has the world’s ears. He wants to produce something that stays there.

What signals does the president send about his own administration and, inevitably, his own predicament?

The best recent example comes from George H.W. Bush, who, in 1989, made a statement that’s hauntingly appropriate for our own time: “We have more will than wallet.” Mr. Obama begins his second term with economic distress, with many unresolved issues overseas, and amid a sense that he hasn’t fulfilled the great promise he brought to the White House. Listen for hints of how he sees his own role in the world, and in history.

Does the president set a vision for the future?

This is not a question about the level of social spending or whether the Pentagon should depend on nimble special forces or conventional land and sea armies. This is a question about what the country is going to be. And it’s the most elusive of achievements in inaugural addresses.

Bill Clinton hit that mark in 1993 when he spoke of what he described as “a simple but powerful truth: We need each other, and we must care for one another.” So did his predecessor, the first George Bush, who said his goal was “to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

But perhaps the best example comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural, a poignant speech that sometimes sits in the shadow of Lincoln’s second inaugural, perhaps the greatest American address ever. Here’s how Lincoln ended that first speech:

“Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

It’s a high bar to cross. Every president tries, including this one.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

Follow on Twitter: @shribmanpg

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