Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Healing Inaugural Address

Michael J. Gerson


This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

As President Obama prepares for his second inaugural address, the atmosphere in Washington is challenging. The recent presidential election was often small and bitter.  Our nation and our political system are highly polarized. And this ongoing problem has only been compounded by recent fiscal debates.

Usually the period from a presidential election to an inauguration is a time to step back and take a break from conflict, a period of detoxification. Because of the fiscal cliff showdown, we did not even see a temporary lull in partisanship. Our politics is more toxic than ever.

A second term is hard enough under any circumstance. Sixteen presidents have been granted a second chance at governing by the American people. But the newness of their administration has worn off.  The country tends to be more skeptical and divided than the first time around. The president’s own team can be intellectually and physically exhausted. 

But these challenges are also an opportunity of sorts. The smallness of our politics is a chance to give a large and generous inaugural speech, an appeal that benefits from the contrast to our times. 

The best inaugural addresses in our history are speeches of unity.  They speak to every American, not just a victorious political coalition. They call attention to values that unify the country in spite of our diversity and disagreements. They try to put a specific historical moment in the context of the American story. And they show some democratic grace. 

Obama’s speech might recognize and address three forms of division and polarization in America. First, there is political polarization: the inability to find common purposes.  Second, there is polarization between the executive branch and the legislature, causing political dysfunction and gridlock. Third there is the polarization of opportunity, with social mobility stalled for millions on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Addressing any of these issues in a serious, sympathetic way could make for an important speech. 

But genuine outreach would require something that is currently very rare in American politics: an understanding of the values and motivations of the other side. Neither liberals nor conservatives are very good at that right now. They tend to think the very worst about one another. Instead of recognizing genuine disagreements, they tend to impute bad motives. Instead of seeking acceptable compromise, they seek absolute victory. 

No single speech can break this dynamic. But a good inaugural speech could, at least, recognize the problem of polarization and marshal the values and history of our country against it. 



—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”