WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four years ago, his challenge was to cut through what he called the “gathering clouds and raging storms” of an economic recession.
When President Barack Obama gives his second inaugural address outside the U.S. Capitol on Monday, the road ahead for him and his presidency is no less challenging. Battles with Republicans loom over federal spending, taxes, the government’s debt limit, gun control and immigration.
Obama is likely to save much of the details on those issues for his State of the Union speech before Congress on February 12. If he follows the pattern of most presidents’ second inaugural addresses, Obama probably will focus on more lofty themes such as a vision for America, as seen in the healthcare overhaul passed during his first term.
In kicking off his second four-year term, the Democratic president also is likely to urge Americans to make their opinions known to Washington’s divided government, as he did this week in urging them to press Congress to back his gun-control proposals.
But in this inauguration speech, Obama will be fighting history, former presidential speechwriters and historians say.
Second-term inaugural addresses rarely carry the drama and excitement that accompanied the first, they said.
“‘Let us continue’ is never as dramatic as, ‘Let us begin,’” said Jeff Shesol, a presidential historian and former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.
Throughout U.S. history, second-term inaugurations largely have been forgotten, a period of transition lacking the charge that comes with a new president.
“On most occasions, it’s little remembered,” Ken Khachigian, a former chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.
That was very much the case at Reagan’s second inauguration, in 1985.
Frigid weather in Washington that day - it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit - forced the ceremony indoors, and Reagan took the oath of office in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The weather, not the president’s speech, was the headline of the day.
A few second-term inaugural speeches have been viewed by historians as significant - perhaps none more so than the one delivered by Abraham Lincoln in 1865, about nine weeks before the end of the Civil War and six weeks before Lincoln was assassinated.
The speech’s final lines, in which Lincoln called for “a lasting peace,” are now being played in movie theaters across the United States in the film, “Lincoln.”
In Washington, city officials are expecting up to 800,000 people to come to Obama’s second inauguration, compared with the estimated 1.8 million who saw him sworn in four years ago as the nation’s first black president.
Among inaugurations in the past three decades, the television audience for the 2009 festivities was topped only by that for Reagan’s first inaugural speech in 1981, when there were considerably fewer viewing options, according to Nielsen, which calculates TV ratings.
The two smallest television audiences for inaugural speeches since then were both for presidents entering their second term: George W. Bush’s address in 2005, and Bill Clinton’s in 1997. Bush’s 2005 speech attracted about half the TV viewership he drew for his first inaugural speech in 2001.
White House officials declined to discuss the details of Obama’s upcoming speech. During his first inaugural speech, Obama called upon the legacy of the nation’s first president, George Washington, praising the general for leading a nascent country out of the Revolutionary War against Great Britain.
“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” Obama said then, a theme that, in his 2012 campaign, evolved into an emphasis on rebuilding the nation’s middle class.
Obama was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004 when he burst onto the national political scene with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” Obama said then. “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
That kind of soaring rhetoric helped propel Obama to the White House four years later - and, perhaps, set the stage for disappointment among some supporters once he became president. Some analysts say Obama’s speeches as president have not always matched his reputation as an inspirational speaker.
Whatever Obama says on Monday, some observers in Washington believe he might already have given his best speech after the 2012 election: His emotional address on December 16, at a memorial service for the 20 children and six adults killed in a mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
Name by name, Obama recounted the victims and vowed to seek changes in gun laws, an issue that had not been atop his agenda during his first term.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” he said of mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “We are not doing enough and we will have to change.”
Obama biographer David Maraniss likened the speech to Obama’s “Gettysburg,” Lincoln’s historic battlefield address during the Civil War.
In a message on Twitter, Maraniss said that “people will long remember what Barack Obama said in Newtown.”
Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by David Lindsey