What Obama Should Say On Monday

Crafting an inaugural address in an age of cheap partisanship is no easy task. Paul Begala on how the president can rise to the challenge.

Chris Maddaloni/Getty,Chris Maddaloni

“History will be kind to me,” Winston Churchill once said. “I intend to write it.”

So it will likely be for President Obama. While criticized by some for fictionalized accounts and composite characters, his autobiography is as literate and lyrical as any presidential writing. Nearly every dime in the hefty (if not Romneyesque) presidential bank account is there because of book sales. The guy can flat-out write.

As he drafts his second inaugural, however, the challenges he faces will test even his impressive skill, as well as the enormous talent of his speechwriters. There is nothing so humbling as staring at a blinking cursor on a screen entitled “Inaugural Address.”

President Obama is at his best when he soars. He is most inspirational when he is most aspirational. He likes to think broadly and speak boldly. And yet this time his lift and loft will be weighted down by hard experience. His task is much like the couple renewing their wedding vows after decades of tough but rewarding marriage. If the words are too idealistic, they will seem hollow or saccharine. If too pedestrian, why even bother?

Unlike wedding vows, a good inaugural contains an element of challenge. JFK set the bar, challenging baby boomers to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship.” (How has that worked out, by the way?

Decades later many of the wealthiest boomers, having avoided service in Vietnam, are whining pathetically about a modest increase in taxes on their second half-million.) President Obama knows the appetite for sacrifice is thin these days, so his scolding is usually reserved for his fellow politicians. There will almost certainly be a moment when he draws himself up to the Olympian posture he favors: tilts back his head, thrusts out his chin, and, literally, looks down his nose at the pygmy pols whose Lilliputian pettiness has derailed his grand plans for remaking our politics.

The hard reality is that Obama is certain to spend his entire presidency trapped in the kind of cheap partisanship he so clearly loathes. He should have known that from the start. His predecessor, who got along famously with the Democrats in Texas, vowed to be “a uniter, not a divider,” yet his presidency was as bitter and divisive as Nixon’s. Same with President Clinton: as he was sworn in for his second term, his hand was on the passage from Isaiah that says, “And thou shalt be called healer of the breach.” The chief justice dismissed him by sniffing, “Good luck.” And the Republicans promptly impeached him.

Despite that history, you can be sure that President Obama will include a powerful pitch to set aside partisan differences and join together for the common good. As if. The president can lash the politicians as much as he likes—and he clearly likes—but it is he who will feel the sting. The words will wash over the populace with no effect, but the politicians will silently seethe—and seek their retribution at a moment when the president is vulnerable.

The fault, dear Mr. President, lies not in our pols, but in ourselves. We the People keep firing politicians who dare to compromise and replacing them with unyielding ideologues. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party star that Texas has sent to the Senate, arrived in the Capitol and proclaimed, “I don’t think what Washington needs is more compromise.” Having received 1.2 million more votes in Texas than Barack Obama, Senator Cruz is speaking for his constituents. No amount of sweet-sounding oratory is going to disabuse him of his hard-driving partisan agenda.

The answer is not to attack the American people; that never works. It is to accept the political culture of your time, while doing what little you can to change it—and then master that culture to meet your ends. That’s the message of Steven Spielberg’s brilliant Lincoln. Yes, the Great Emancipator used his first inaugural to call on his countrymen to heed “the better angels of our nature.” But when that failed, he waged war pitilessly and cut deals relentlessly. If President Obama is to have a successful second term, he would do well to echo Lincoln’s noble rhetoric, then copy his ruthless deeds. After all is said and done, what’s done matters more than what’s said.