From Lincoln to Obama, Presidents Speak of Harsh Realities in Inaugural Addresses

The inaugural address has historically been used to set the agenda for a president’s term and reassure Americans in times of crisis. Here are some of the more famous presidential inaugural addresses, and what they said about the state of the nation when they were given.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861 — “The better angels of our nature”

President Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, with the United States on the brink of civil war. By the time of his inauguration, seven states had already seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy to preserve the institution of slavery in the South. The Civil War would begin in earnest a month later, with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.

In a final appeal to quell the secession crisis, Lincoln’s inaugural address balanced a conciliatory tone — with Lincoln vowing that he would not “interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists” — with the declaration that any state’s secession from the Union was “legally void” and the pledge that violence against the federal government would be considered an insurrection.

The dual nature of Lincoln’s address is apparent in his closing statement, warning the seceding states against an armed conflict while appealing to their shared heritage as Americans.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933 — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

President Roosevelt began his presidency with the country in the depths of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in American history, as unemployment peaked at 25 percent. Roosevelt had been swept to a landslide victory against the incumbent president, Herbert Hoover, and used that popular mandate to announce swift and decisive action to address the crisis.

Roosevelt also used the bully pulpit to criticize those he held responsible for the failures in the economy: big business and the banks — “through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence” — and his predecessor in the Oval Office, of whom the speech was “implicit with criticism.”

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    Yet the president throughout the address also offered hope to Americans who were facing what appeared to be their darkest hour, providing one of the most famous maxims in the history of the American presidency.

    This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

    John F. Kennedy, 1961 — “Ask what you can do for your country.”

    John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president was dominated by the issue of the Cold War. His inaugural address mirrored that overarching theme, while also touching on the strengthening of global alliances and “a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

    Kennedy particularly focused on the issue of poverty throughout the speech, promising aid to those “across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery,” even when it may not be in the direct interest of the United States.

    The address also produced Kennedy’s most memorable quote, calling upon Americans and the global community to serve a common good at a momentous point in history.

    And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

    Ronald Reagan, 1981 — “Government is the problem.”

    In 1981, during his first inauguration, President Reagan spoke as 52 Americans who had been held hostage in Iran for 14 months were finally headed toward freedom. But he made no mention of them in his inaugural address — Reagan’s focus was squarely on issues at home.

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    Reagan instead heralded the Republican policies he would go on to steer during his next eight years in office. “We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow,” he said in criticism of the national debt, announcing his administration’s objective to push for a “healthy, vigorous, growing economy.” And Reagan spoke critically of government as a whole, saying that he would ensure that government would “stand by our side, not ride on our back.”

    The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

    Bill Clinton, 1993 — “The engine of our own renewal”

    President Clinton was the first president elected in the post-Cold War era, assuming leadership of the United States as the sole superpower on Earth. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for nearly half a century had fallen with it, offering a symbolic victory for liberal democracies around the world.

    Mr. Clinton’s inaugural speech marked this turning point in history — which he described as a “new world” that had become “more free but less stable” — with a call for change and renewal in America, and a focus on issues like poverty, crime and the cost of health care.

    He also offered a continuing commitment to American intervention in foreign affairs, vowing that “America must continue to lead the world we did so much to make” as the global community confronted new crises.

    Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.

    Barack Obama, 2009 — “Our collective failure to make hard choices”

    President Obama began his first term during the depths of the Great Recession, after being forced to confront the global economic collapse during his campaign. There is, he said in his inaugural address, “a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable,” he said in his inaugural address.

    But Mr. Obama struck a hopeful tone as he highlighted American strength and diversity, including alluding to his own historic election as the nation’s first Black president. Indicating how his administration would strive to lead the country forward, he also urged upon Americans “a new era of responsibility.”

    That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.

    Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded, then, is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.

    Donald Trump, 2017 — “This American carnage stops right here.”

    Speaking as president for the first time, President Trump eschewed the tradition preserved by previous presidents — even those ascending to the presidency in bleak times — of sending a message of hope or leadership in an inaugural address. Instead, he provided a dark illustration of average Americans who he said had been ignored by Washington.

    Mr. Trump’s remarks were a seamless transition from the calls during his campaign to “drain the swamp” of Washington politicians. In his Inauguration Day remarks, that message became a vow to those Americans — “You will never be ignored again.”

    About 15 minutes long, the speech was also shorter than most modern inaugural addresses.

    But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

    This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

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