Inaugurations Are Powerful Symbols of American Democracy

By Dora Mekouar/VOA

Every four years, Americans pause for Inauguration Day to witness a hallmark of American democracy — the peaceful transfer of power. On January 20, all eyes will be on former Vice President Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.  

Inauguration Day affirms the enduring American ideal of self-government. The new leader is sworn in after gaining the power to rule by the consent of the governed.   

Setting the tone 

New presidents begin their term with a speech that sets the tone for the next four years.  

“It’s a real opportunity for American renewal,” says Colleen Shogan, senior vice president at the White House Historical Association. “It is the first time that the president introduces himself as president to the nation, and he will never have that opportunity again to do that. So, it’s a very important moment in American history.”  

Some inaugural phrases strike enough of a chord that they become part of the American lexicon.  

There is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 pronouncement that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And in 1961, John F. Kennedy told Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” 

“The speech embodies the ideas, the ideology, and the style and tone of the new president,” says political historian Matt Dallek of The George Washington University. 

Some inaugural speeches have a lasting impact on the political landscape. Forty years after Ronald Reagan declared that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” Republicans continue to embrace anti-government rhetoric.  

Transcending the moment 

Whether it is Reagan’s call for limiting federal power, or the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first Black president, there are times when inaugurations transcend their moment.   

“They live on in national memory because they speak to something more fundamental about the country and about the period in which it is passing,” Dallek says.    VOA