Inauguration Day: Setting the Scene for America’s Global Leadership

January 20, 2021 By Joan Steiger

Inauguration Day marks an important moment for our nation—and this year is no different. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and a mere two weeks after violent attacks on the U.S. Capitol, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States.

Like other Democratic and Republican presidents before him, President Biden’s Inaugural address highlighted a clear vision for the role of American leadership and engagement in the world to support “peace, prosperity, and security”:

“We can make America again the leading force of good in the world… We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example. We’ll be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

“This is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world… Are we going to step up—all of us? It’s time for boldness, for there’s so much to do… I believe we will, and when we do, we’ll write the next great chapter in the history of the United States of America.”

In honor of Inauguration Day 2021, we’ve compiled a list of eight quotes from Inaugural addresses over the last 80 years – one from each decade – highlighting this shared, bipartisan vision of the United States as a leader at home and abroad.

President Harry S. Truman (1949)

“The American people desire, and are determined to work for, a world in which all nations and all peoples are free to govern themselves as they see fit, and to achieve a decent and satisfying life. Above all else, our people desire, and are determined to work for, peace on earth—a just and lasting peace—based on genuine agreement freely arrived at by equals.”

“The initiative is ours. We are moving on with other nations to build an even stronger structure of international order and justice. We shall have as our partners countries which, no longer solely concerned with the problem of national survival, are now working to improve the standards of living of all their people. We are ready to undertake new projects to strengthen a free world.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1957):

“This is our home—yet this is not the whole of our world. For our world is where our full destiny lies—with men, of all people, and all nations, who are or would be free. And for them—and so for us—this is no time of ease or of rest.”

“We must use our skills and knowledge and, at times, our substance, to help others rise from misery, however far the scene of suffering may be from our shores. For wherever in the world a people knows desperate want, there must appear at least the spark of hope, the hope of progress—or there will surely rise at last the flames of conflict.”

President John F. Kennedy (1961):

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

“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.”

President Jimmy Carter (1977):

“Our Nation can be strong abroad only if it is strong at home. And we know that the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation.”

“I would hope that the nations of the world might say that we had built a lasting peace, built not on weapons of war but on international policies which reflect our own most precious values.”

President Ronald Reagan (1985):

“America must remain freedom’s staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally. And it is the world’s only hope, to conquer poverty and preserve peace. Every blow we inflict against poverty will be a blow against its dark allies of oppression and war. Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace.”

“So, we go forward today, a nation still mighty in its youth and powerful in its purpose. With our alliances strengthened, with our economy leading the world to a new age of economic expansion, we look forward to a world rich in possibilities. And all this because we have worked and acted together, not as members of political parties, but as Americans.”

President Bill Clinton (1993):

“To renew America, we must meet challenges abroad as well at home. There is no longer division between what is foreign and what is domestic; the world economy, the world environment, the world AIDS crisis, the world arms race; they affect us all. Today, as an old order passes, the new world is more free but less stable. Communism’s collapse has called forth old animosities and new dangers. Clearly America must continue to lead the world we did so much to make.”

“Our greatest strength is the power of our ideas, which are still new in many lands. Across the world, we see them embraced, and we rejoice. Our hopes, our hearts, our hands, are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Their cause is America’s cause.”

President George W. Bush (2001):

“The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake, America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom. We will defend our allies and our interests; we will show purpose without arrogance; we will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve and strength; and to all nations, we will speak for the values that gave our nation birth.”

President Barack Obama (2013):

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe. And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

“And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice—not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”