WASHINGTON -- Inaugurations can be a time to heal deep political wounds inflicted during election season with lofty rhetorical speeches aimed at unifying the nation and celebrating its people.
That was the core of the most famous second-term inaugural -- Abraham Lincoln's call to bind up the nation's wounds.
As he frames Monday's inaugural address, President Barack Obama confronts the choice of following that conciliatory example or sounding a more combative tone as he prepares to renew his battles with the most partisan Congress in modern history.
The latter approach would be unusual for an inaugural address, but it's not out of the question. There's little to be lost politically by declaring war against a Congress with an 18 percent approval rating.
"The purpose is to put an end to what is normally a pretty rancorous campaign and to move the country forward in a positive and unified way" toward a honeymoon period that Congress usually affords both first- and second-term presidents, said Joseph Valenzano, assistant professor of communication at the University of Dayton.
But academics say this address could be different.
Congress has been bitterly divided over fiscal policy over the last few weeks, and Republicans are already threatening to allow a government shutdown in order to force the president and congressional Democrats to agree to spending cuts.
"He may use this address like a hammer against Republicans, and that could be an error," Mr. Valenzano said. "What he really needs to do is appear above the fray."
Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan Debate Program, agreed. "He's going to have to rise above and not point fingers or say blame lies with any particular party," he said. "Rancor and partisanship are hurting the country and voters want them to end. They want more civility."
The president already is setting a tone for his second term.
On Wednesday he circumvented Congress by signing a package of executive orders aimed at curbing gun violence. Conservatives criticized the president for the move, saying gun control is a matter for the legislative branch, not the White House.
Two days earlier, he drew a line in the sand on one of the GOP's most pressing agenda items: the debt ceiling. He insisted it must be raised and said that isn't subject to negotiation.
A successful second term, meanwhile, could hinge on compromise.
"Trying to set up an atmosphere of compromise and cooperation [in an inaugural address] is usually the smartest thing to do, but from his remarks in recent weeks I'm not sure he's heading in that direction," said Craig Smith, professor of communication at California State University at Long Beach and a former speechwriter for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
It appears that the president is gearing up to establish that he's the leader of the country and the one calling the shots, Mr. Smith said. "How he decides he's going to phrase that in an eloquent and poetic way is up to him."
Presidents traditionally avoid nitty-gritty policy details during inaugural addresses, preferring to paint with broad brush strokes, then fill in the details during February State of the Union addresses.
This time, political scientists see signs that Mr. Obama may deviate from that model, and they warn that presidents who conflate ceremonial addresses with policy speeches ruin their inaugural addresses.
"What you try to do in the inaugural is set out a framework of values you want people to embrace. It's a very high-minded speech. It's ceremonial," Mr. Smith said.
For Mr. Obama, that doesn't mean steering clear of partisan issues, particularly gun control, since the inauguration comes just five weeks after the worst elementary school shooting in American history.
Mr. Obama will be walking to the podium with the confidence that he scored a decisive victory at the hands of voters who signaled they want to continue on the path he put them on.
"He won by a significant margin. These are people that want to stay the course," said Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York.
That's likely to embolden him but, she said, it's also likely to galvanize Republicans, who believe Mr. Obama represents the antithesis of everything they value from low taxes to traditional marriage to gun rights.
"The hope now is that all of the trepidation that he showed in the first term is gone," said Ms. Greer. "He's not going to come out like gangbusters because that's not his style, but a lot of people are saying he's got to be bolder" on issues, including immigration.
He can't be so bold, though, that he alienates his party before the midterm elections, she said. If Republicans retain control of the House, he'll have little chance of implementing education reform or ensuring that his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is fully funded and rolled out as he envisions.
Robert C. Smith, political scientist at San Francisco State University, said the president is likely to be consumed with its implementation over the next four years.
"There's a lot of bureaucracy involved," he said. "He's going to want to make sure it's implemented in a way that's irreversible. He'll want to achieve the legacy of having comprehensive national health insurance. That's a huge achievement and what he will be remembered for."
That focus will leave little time for any big new policy initiatives, the professor predicts.
Still, he's already promised to use the full power of his office to reform gun control.
Climate change, immigration and foreign relations in the Middle East also are likely to get some attention during the president's second term.
Of those, immigration seems to have the most traction.
It would be a do-over for Mr. Obama, whose efforts fell short of his 2008 campaign promises. He did sign an executive order to provide amnesty to young illegal immigrants enrolled in school or the military, but the effort disappointed Hispanics who were skeptical that the measure came at the height of election season when he needed their votes.
"He will definitely have to address it within the next four years because if he doesn't, it will be a blemish on the party," Ms. Greer said.
The president, meanwhile, spent the last Monday of his first term touting his accomplishments -- winding down wars, ending tax breaks for the wealthy -- and telling reporters that voters have made clear that they agree with his approach to the federal budget.
"They listened to an entire year's debate over this issue and they made a clear decision about the approach they prefer," he said during a press conference last week.
The inaugural address is scheduled to be delivered immediately after the public swearing-in at noon Monday on the west side of the U.S. Capitol. About 800,000 people are expected around the Capitol and National Mall for a glimpse.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292 or firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published January 20, 2013 5:00 AM