WASHINGTON USA (AP) — President Barack Obama is eager to give a speech for the ages at his inauguration and turn the page on a first term consumed by economic turmoil and set an optimistic tone for four more years that will define his legacy.
He will take the oath of office today in an intimate White House ceremony witnessed by family, and then again tomorrow before a crowd of hundreds of thousands on the National Mall. Washington will also play host to the traditional inaugural parade and formal balls tomorrow.
The festivities were kicked off yesterday by a National Day of Service, but it’s Obama’s inaugural address that will be the centrepiece of the three-day affair.
The president has been working on his speech since early December, writing out draft after draft on yellow legal pads, aides say. He’s read several second-term inaugural addresses delivered by his predecessors. And last week, he invited a small group of historians to the White House to discuss the potential — and the pitfalls — of second-term inaugurals.
Heading into his speech, Obama does have history on his mind, particularly two of the great American leaders he most deeply admires, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. The start of Obama’s second term coincides with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington, and he has chosen to take the public oath with his hand on both their bibles stacked together.
“Their actions, the movements they represented are the only reason it’s possible for me to be inaugurated,” Obama said of Lincoln and King in a video released Friday by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. “It’s also a reminder for me that this country has gone through very tough times before but we always come out on the other side.”
Aides say the president will touch on some of the challenges he’ll take on in a second term, but won’t delve deeply into the policy objectives he’ll tackle in the next four years. Those details will be saved for his February 12 State of the Union address.
But the tone and theme of tomorrow’s speech will set the stage for the policy fights to come. Obama may in some way reference the Connecticut elementary school shooting that pushed gun control to the top of his agenda. He may also speak of a need to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, another second-term priority, and to bring US troops home from Afghanistan.
Obama’s speech won’t be overly political. But aides said he will make the point that while the American political system doesn’t require politicians to resolve all of their differences, it does require Washington to act on issues where there is common ground. And he will speak about how America’s core principles can still guide a country that has changed immensely since its founding.
The president was still working on his speech heading into inauguration weekend. He’s been hammering out the details for many weeks with longtime speechwriter Jon Favreau, who worked with the president on his first inaugural address and nearly every other high-profile speech he’s given since.
Obama may aim for brevity in the speech. Still, he’s certain to speak longer than Lincoln, who offered the nation just 700 words in his acclaimed second inaugural.
Douglas Brinkley, one of the historians who met with Obama, endorsed the “brief is better” strategy. But he also said that with Obama scaling back some of the grandeur of the broader inaugural celebration, there is an opportunity for his speech to become the focal point.
“This time around, I think the inaugural speech has to carry the day,” Brinkley said. “There are less balls, fewer people. There’s a chance to make this stand out.”
The crowd spread before Obama is expected to be much smaller than the record 1.8 million who packed the National Mall four years ago to see him sworn in as the nation’s first black president. But the estimates of 600,000 to 800,000 this time still would make it the largest attendance ever for a second presidential inauguration.
Obama has cut back on some of the revelling from four years ago — there will be no concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and there will only be two balls instead of 10. But there will still be elaborate celebration — a long list of top entertainment acts including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Brad Paisley have signed on to perform at the weekend’s events, including the two official balls that are expected to draw around 40,000 people to the Washington Convention Centre.
Part of Obama’s weekend also will involve thanking the donors who are contributing toward his committee’s $50-million fundraising goal to put on the celebration. The president and first lady hosted supporters Friday at the White House, and he planned to attend a reception at the National Building Museum tonight with more donors.
The inaugural ceremonies are a national tradition but not constitutionally required. The 20th Amendment says the president and vice-president automatically start their new terms at noon on January 20.
Obama plans to take the oath officially shortly before noon today in the White House’s Blue Room, an oval space with majestic views of the South Lawn and the Washington Monument. Named for the colour of the drapes, upholstery and carpet, it is not typically used for ceremonies and instead has primarily been a reception room as well as being the site of the only presidential wedding held in the White House, between Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsum in 1886.