WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has been looking to historians for guidance on how to shape his second inaugural's words into a speech for the ages, eager to make good use of his twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity to command the world's attention.
He will take the oath of office Sunday in an intimate White House ceremony witnessed by family, and then again Monday at the Capitol before a crowd of hundreds of thousands on the National Mall. Washington will also play host to the traditional inaugural parade and formal balls Monday, as well as a day of service today that kicks off the festivities.
But it's Obama's inaugural address that will be the centerpiece of the three-day affair. The president will seek to turn the page on a first term consumed by economic turmoil and set an optimistic tone for four more years that will help define his legacy.
The president has been working on his speech since early December, writing out draft after draft on yellow legal pads, aides say. He's read several second-term inaugural addressed delivered by his predecessors. And last week, he invited a small group of historians to the White House to discuss the potential – and the pitfalls – of second-term inaugurals.
Heading into his speech, Obama does have history on his mind, particularly two of the great American leaders he most deeply admires, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. The start of Obama's second term coincides with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of King's March on Washington, and he has chosen to take the public oath with his hand on both their bibles stacked together.
"Their actions, the movements they represented are the only reason it's possible for me to be inaugurated," Obama said of Lincoln and King in a video released Friday by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. "It's also a reminder for me that this country has gone through very tough times before but we always come out on the other side."
Aides say the president will touch on some of the challenges he'll take on in a second term but won't delve deeply into the policy objectives he'll tackle in the next four years. Those details will be saved for his Feb. 12 State of the Union address.
But the tone and theme of Monday's speech will set the stage for the policy fights to come. Obama may in some way to reference the Connecticut elementary school shooting that pushed gun control to the top of his agenda. He may also speak of a need to tackle comprehensive immigration reform, another second-term priority, and to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.
Obama's speech won't be overly political. But aides said he will make the point that while the nation's political system doesn't require politicians to resolve all of their differences, it does require Washington to act on issues where there is common ground. And he will speak about how the nation's core principles can still guide a country that has changed immensely since its founding.
The president was still working on his speech heading into inauguration weekend. He's been hammering out the details for many weeks with longtime speechwriter Jon Favreau, who worked with the president on his first inaugural address and nearly every other high-profile speech he's given since.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president takes the responsibility of a second term "enormously seriously."
"He didn't seek re-election just to be re-elected," Carney said. "He believes that we have work to do, and he believes that both the agenda he has put forward so far and the agenda he will put forward in the future will help this country move forward in a variety of ways. This is something he feels very deeply."
The crowd spread before Obama is expected to be much smaller than the record 1.8 million who packed the National Mall four years ago to see him sworn in as the nation's first black president. But the estimates of 600,000 to 800,000 this time still would make it the largest attendance ever for a second presidential inauguration.
Obama has cut back on some of the reveling from four years ago – there will be no concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and only two balls instead of 10. But there will still be elaborate celebration – a long list of top entertainment acts including Beyonce, Katy Perry and Brad Paisley have signed on to perform at the weekend's events, including the two official balls that are expected to draw around 40,000 people to the Washington Convention Center.
Part of Obama's weekend also will involve thanking the donors who are contributing toward his committee's $50 million fundraising goal to put on the celebration. The president and first lady hosted supporters Friday at the White House, and he planned to attend a Sunday night reception at the National Building Museum with more donors.
Obama is trying to expand the National Day of Service that begins the weekend's events Saturday – a call for Americans across the country to honor King's legacy by serving their communities. He is hoping the day will become an inaugural tradition and also is looking toward his legacy with the speech.
The president sought advice from a small group of historians during a dinner at the White House last week. Beyond just the mechanics of second inaugural addresses, the dinner focused broadly on how presidents manage their second terms.
Perhaps more than any of his predecessors, Franklin D. Roosevelt's second inaugural address could serve as a model for Obama.
Each man took office amid economic turmoil that eased during his first four years in the White House. When Roosevelt spoke to the nation after taking the oath of office a second time, he reported economic progress but cautioned that there was more work to do. Obama has often voiced similar sentiments, using the signs of improvement as his justification for re-election throughout the 2012 campaign.
Obama may aim for brevity in Monday's speech. Still, he's certain to speak longer than Lincoln, who offered the nation just 700 words in his acclaimed second inaugural.
Douglas Brinkley, one of the historians who met with Obama, endorsed the "brief is better" strategy. But he also said that with Obama scaling back some of the grandeur of the broader inaugural celebration, there is an opportunity for his speech to become the focal point.
"This time around, I think the inaugural speech has to carry the day," Brinkley said. "There are less balls, fewer people. There's a chance to make this stand out."
The inaugural ceremonies are a national tradition but not constitutionally required. The 20th Amendment says the president and vice president automatically start their new terms at noon on Jan. 20.
Obama plans to take the oath officially shortly before noon Sunday in the White House's Blue Room, an oval space with majestic views of the South Lawn and the Washington Monument. Named for the color of the drapes, upholstery and carpet, it is not typically used for ceremonies and instead has primarily been a reception room as well as being the site of the only presidential wedding held in the White House, between Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsum in 1886.