Inaugural Speech 2013: Will Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon Influence President Obama?


Editor's Note: This article is an installment in an 11-part series on the inaugurations of incumbent presidents who were elected to additional terms in office, culminating in an on-the-ground report of Obama's second inauguration.

Richard Nixon (January 20, 1973) and Ronald Reagan (January 20, 1949).

1) Nixon (1973)

Richard Nixon's second inaugural address marks a somewhat paradoxical convergence of triumph and tragedy. On the one hand, he was celebrating a landslide reelection in which he bested the Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, in 49 out of 50 states. Even better, he was in the process of bringing an end to the long-standing Vietnam War, capping off an impressive list of foreign policy achievements topped by his success in opening American relations with China. At the same time, the Watergate break-ins had occurred only seven months earlier. While they had done little to harm his reelection prospects, ominous clouds were already emerging which suggested that the burglary might plunge Nixon's second term in scandal. Though few could have imagined that Nixon would be forced to resign in disgrace just more than a year-and-a-half down the road, there was an unmistakable irony in hearing Nixon say things like, "I ask your prayers that in the years ahead I may have God's help in making decisions that are right for America, and I pray for your help so that together we may be worthy of our challenge."

Of course, given the legacy of his first term, it seems only fair to focus on the part of Nixon's second inaugural which rightly learned the greater lessons of his achievements.

The time has passed when America will make every other nation's conflict our own, or make every other nation's future our responsibility, or presume to tell the people of other nations how to manage their own affairs.

Just as we respect the right of each nation to determine its own future, we also recognize the responsibility of each nation to secure its own future.

Just as America's role is indispensable in preserving the world's peace, so is each nation's role indispensable in preserving its own peace. 

2) Reagan (1985)

Just as Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a political era dominated by proactive liberalism, so too did Ronald Reagan initiate our current right-wing period. His second inaugural, naturally, pointed to his landslide reelection over Walter Mondale (Reagan won 49 states and just shy of 60 percent of the popular vote) as a vindication of his bold economic conservatism. Yet perhaps the most notable feature of Reagan's speech wasn't that it lauded his own controversial ideas, but rather that he did it without vilifying those who opposed him. Indeed, Reagan recognized – as many conservatives today do not – that democracy not only protected the liberals whose ideas he felt were erroneous, but depended upon them. While many historians claim that Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural address provided the most eloquent championing of bipartisanship, I would argue that Reagan beat him by a hair in this passage (one that, appropriately, uses Jefferson's own story).

Our two-party system has served us well over the years, but never better than in those times of great challenge when we came together not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans united in a common cause.

Two of our Founding Fathers, a Boston lawyer named Adams and a Virginia planter named Jefferson, members of that remarkable group who met in Independence Hall and dared to think they could start the world over again, left us an important lesson. They had become political rivals in the Presidential election of 1800. Then years later, when both were retired, and age had softened their anger, they began to speak to each other again through letters. A bond was reestablished between those two who had helped create this government of ours.

In 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, they both died. They died on the same day, within a few hours of each other, and that day was the Fourth of July.

In one of those letters exchanged in the sunset of their lives, Jefferson wrote: "It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless ... we rode through the storm with heart and hand."