Should Inaugural Addresses Unify the Nation?

January 23, 2013

President Obama’s critics and supporters seem to agree on one thing about his second inaugural address: It was a bold statement of his core progressive philosophy, intended not as a unifying statement but as a declaration of principle.

His supporters loved it. His critics were not so enthusiastic. Either way, the president’s energized words should not have come as a surprise. Mr. Obama is hardly the first chief executive to use the inaugural address as a chance to enunciate firmly held beliefs, even if they are divisive or controversial.
Take, for example, Ronald Reagan’s famous declaration the government was not the answer to the nation’s problems. “Government,” Reagan said in his first inaugural in 1981, “is the problem.”

Commentators on Fox News Channel were besides themselves just after Obama’s inaugural because, several said, it did nothing to unify the country. But neither did Reagan’s first inaugural – imagine what old Democratic lions like Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill were thinking when they heard Reagan’s denunciation of government.
On the other side of the aisle, Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his second inaugural to point the finger of blame at those he believed were responsible for the nation’s plunge into the Great Depression. Speaking of his actions during his first term, he said, “We of the republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it.” Lots of bankers were less than enthusiastic about Roosevelt’s speech.

There certainly are times when inaugural addresses should seek to bring together the nation, rather than serve as ideological pronouncements. Abraham Lincoln’s poetic second inaugural famously asked for “malice toward none, and charity for all.” That was a unifying speech like no other.

President Obama’s recitation of the nation’s struggle to achieve a more-perfect union was hardly a radical leftist document. But it definitely was not designed to bring critics and supporters together.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?