Presidential inaugurations have been a part of American politics since the election of our first president. Though the ceremonial aspects vary from term to term, the tradition still remains mostly the same. Bill Rosenberg, professor of history and politics and director of Drexel’s Survey Research Center, shares his thoughts about the history of presidential inaugurations and what President Obama’s ceremony on January 21 says about his second term in office.
Why is the inauguration tradition important, and what purpose does it serve to our people?
Inaugurations provide an opportunity for our nation to celebrate both the process and person chosen to lead our nation. On Monday, January 21 the president was the focal point in the celebration of American leadership. At the inauguration, President Obama was in a unique position to clarify his policy prescriptions for the U.S. and perhaps the world as well. With all of the trappings of our media age, the President was able to reach vast populations directly to share his vision.
Recall memorable acceptance speech images including Kennedy’s (1960) “Ask not what your government can do for you, ask what you can do for your government,” and his call for a space program to the moon; Reagan’s (1980) “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem;” Clinton’s (1992) “But our greatest strength is the power of our ideas, which are still new in many lands. Across the world, we see them embraced, and we rejoice. Our hopes, our hearts, our hands, are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom;” and Obama’s (2008) “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” These statements represented the aspirations and assessments of our incoming presidents and provided a vision of their pathway to the future.
Have inaugurations always been held on January 20?
In earlier periods incoming presidents were inaugurated on March 4 to allow them time to square away business interests and move to the Capital. However, this four-month lag time—termed a “lame duck period”—posed serious political problems in at least two cases.
In 1861, the lame duck period affected President Lincoln with the problem of the secession of Southern states, and in 1933, it affected President Roosevelt’s attempts to address the Great Depression. To avoid future lame duck problems, Roosevelt ratified the 20 th Amendment, which changed the formal presidential inauguration ceremonies to January 20 (except when it occurs on a Sunday).
Today, we live in a world were action is required on a more immediate basis. President Obama has already confronted one of his major challenges—taxes—in the period just before he was inaugurated for his second term.
What significance did yesterday’s inauguration hold for President Obama?
As President Barack Obama approached his second inauguration, he had already accomplished much, including healthcare reform and the wind-down of some of our longest military conflicts as well as facing a major challenge in regard to the “fiscal cliff,” which for now is temporarily addressed. He still faces the debt ceiling crisis which is looming large only a few weeks from now. In addition, a multitude of other issues face the President including the budget battles, debates over the size and role of government, the Middle East crises, and comprehensive immigration reform. His hope of diminishing political polarization still eludes him.
President Obama will face many challenges— domestically and internationally—as he starts his second term and his inauguration speech was meant to provide the world with a road map of where he hopes to take the United States. As an incumbent, many political salvos have already been shot toward the President and his policies. His political adversaries and hopefuls for the 2016 presidential election will be paying close attention to his inauguration speech and the policy prescriptions he’s going to be providing for the new term.
However, for a few short minutes, we heard his priorities and vision dealing with the important issues he will face this term. Those moments serve to unite us as a nation as the ceremony confers power to our President. Whether we agree or disagree with him, even in our polarized political environment, most view him as our singular national leader and on inauguration day, Americans tend to collectively embrace the President.