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Where Will History Rank Obama’s Inauguration Speech?

As news anchors, commentators and political analysts narrated the protocols and traditions of inauguration day, they also parsed the president’s speech to see where he placed emphasis, what he gave short shrift and where he intended to compromise or stand his ground.

Some looked for President Obama to be more specific about the economy, the environment and immigration, the three priorities he outlined for his second term. Others wanted Obama to signal less willingness to compromise with conservative Republicans and more how he would take the fight to them.

Still, one commentator said it was probably a good thing that the president didn’t try to lay everything out in one speech. There is a tradition that augurs against stemwinders, too much candor or too little substance.

The nation’s ninth president, William Henry Harrison, had the dubious distinction of delivering the longest inauguration speech and having the shortest presidency. Harrison stood in the bitter cold during a snowstorm and delivered a two-hour speech. After, he stayed out in the cold greeting well-wishers and attended the late-night parties. He subsequently caught pneumonia and within a month was dead at age 68.

George Washington’s second inauguration speech was the shortest – just 135 words:

“Fellow Citizens:

“I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

“Previous to the execution of any official act of the President, the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”

While presidents tend to be self-effacing about their skills and talents and the task ahead, perhaps Franklin Pierce was a little too honest about his fears.

“It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.”

According to,”This confessional takes humility to a new level and is problematic given that it is being delivered to a country that just elected him because of their confidence in his leadership. Perhaps it is better suited for a journal entry than an inaugural address, one purpose of which is to reinforce the confidence bestowed upon a newly elected president.” Forbes reviewed all 56 inaugural addresses that preceded Obama’s second address on Monday.

Regardless of where nonpartisan observers rank Obama’s inaugural speeches, it is probably safe to say he won’t be ranked at the bottom of the heap.

Many historians and presidential trivia experts cite a particularly singular example of the worst speech ever.

President James Buchanan, in 1857, as the storm clouds of Civil War were gathering over the nation, chose to dismiss the issue as less than important on the list of the nation’s priorities.

“May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its end… Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance,” Buchanan said.

By the end of his term four years later, that mistaken judgment was apparent for the world to see.

So Obama is probably safe from ignominy, but in addition to the words themselves, he’ll be judged by the outcome of the charge he gave the country in his inaugural addresses.

Perhaps, he made that point best himself on Monday:

“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.”

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”


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