President should identify the good work of government in address

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Historically, inaugurations are all about unity. Going back to George Washington, presidents have recognized division as perhaps our most serious political problem, and they have used inaugural speeches to pledge, and sometimes beg for, greater solidarity.

Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address famously captured this idea in urging the nation to set aside party divisions and recognize that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” In his 1985 inaugural (and with language that now seems sadly quaint) Ronald Reagan praised a two party system that “has served us well over the years” especially when the parties come together “as Americans united in a common cause.”

The sources of unity cited during inaugurations are predictable and recurring. Religion is the most common tool used by presidents to forge a sense of coming together. George Bush referenced God and the divine ten times in his fifteen minute first inaugural. In the midst of the civil war, Lincoln reminded partisans on both sides that they “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Indeed, with the sole exception of Washington’s second address, every president has included at least one reference to God or the “Almighty” in his inauguralremarks.

Presidential inaugurations have also drawn on the unity of American ideals (what Jefferson called “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty”) and venerated texts (Bush urged us to honor “the durable wisdom of our Constitution”). Only somewhat less frequently, presidents have invoked crises (the civil war, the 2008 economic recession, and the “day of fire” of September 11) to bring the nation together.

In today’s atmosphere of continued and worsening partisan division, President Obama will surely deploy these and other tactics to stake out common ground and mend what Lincoln described (during his second inaugural) as “the nation’s wounds.”

But as daunting as that task is, there’s a second goal Obama should advance during his inaugural address, a task that may prove even harder. He needs to make government and its work seem attractive and worth doing.

Since recent polls have found Congress less popular than cockroaches and faith in government in general to be at historic lows, the urgency of this task seems fairly apparent. Perhaps more surprising is the observation that promoting a distinctive and positive role of government has been a frequent theme of inaugural remarks spanning a wide range of presidents.

In pledging “malice toward none” and “charity for all” Lincoln looked past the crucible of war and toward building trust and a “just and lasting peace” with the secessionist south. In the midst of a cold war, and facing public anxiety about nation states with the power to unleash thermonuclear destruction, President Kennedy promised that government would “invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors” by exploring the stars, eradicating disease, tapping natural resources, and encouraging “the arts and commerce.” Four decades later, George Bush pledged his administration’s role in promoting home ownership and extending health insurance to give “every American a stake in the promise and future of our country.”

In his second inauguration, President Obama, too, should be focused on identifying the good work of government. He should resist the urge to bash Congress, or chide his Republican colleagues, as he sometimes did during the fiscal cliff negotiations. But, even more importantly he needs to outline the unique and essential tasks that national government alone can fulfill.

The fifty-seventh inauguration of the President of the United States needs to offer more than pomp, circumstance, and Katy Perry. Drawing on his inaugural remarks from four years earlier, President Obama should sketch how our government can be a successful experiment in planning for the future and how Washington politics can overcome “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

Peabody is a professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.