In preparing my Inaugural Address, I took the liberty of reading all 55 such addresses that have been delivered since our nation was founded 220 years ago, as well as several farewell addresses. There is a lot of wisdom in these speeches, so I hope that you will indulge me as I insert excerpts from previous Presidential addresses into my own remarks today.
I want people around the world to look at the United States as a model. If people are afraid to speak their minds for fear of government oppression, I want them to think, “I want my country to be like the United States of America.” If they are malnourished or starving or their children are threatened by disease, I want them to think, “I wish my country could be like the United States of America.”
The past few years, we have seen the Executive Branch seize power from the other two branches of government and reserve the right, through “signing statements” and other devices, to ignore laws passed by Congress. I intend to treat my disagreements with Congress in the old-fashioned way, the way that worked for more than 200 years. In his Inaugural Address in 1869, Ulysses S. Grant said, “On all leading questions agitating the public mind I will always express my views to Congress and urge them according to my judgment, and when I think it advisable will exercise the constitutional privilege of interposing a veto to defeat measures which I oppose; but all laws will be faithfully executed, whether they meet my approval or not.… I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.”
We, the American people, face a time of great economic uncertainty. Jobs have been lost; houses been lost; and, to a certain extent, confidence has been lost. However, ours are not the first generations to find ourselves in this position. Seventy-six years ago, in his first Inaugural Address, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke words that apply today as clearly as they did in 1933. He said, “The rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed…. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.…Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision... The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
Four years later, in his Inaugural Address of 1937, Roosevelt added, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little…. In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.”
My predecessor, George W. Bush, in his Inaugural Address of 2001, put it another way. He said, “Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities, and all of us are diminished when any are hopeless.”
President Bush’s father, in his Inaugural Address of 1989 also reminded us of which values are really important. His words were: “We are not the sum of our possessions. They are not the measure of our lives. In our hearts we know what matters. We cannot hope only to leave our children a bigger car, a bigger bank account. We must hope to give them a sense of what it means to be a loyal friend, a loving parent, a citizen who leaves his home, his neighborhood and town better than he found it.”
Every generation looks for heroes. But there are heroes all around us. They may not express their heroism in military battle, but in their acts of daily life they are heroes all the same. As Ronald Reagan said in his Farewell Address, “Let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”
The United States is a great nation. We have shown others about democracy, about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, about rewarding creative thinking and innovation, about providing economic and cultural opportunities for all races, all religions, for all citizens including those newly arrived. The United States is a great nation. But other nations are great too. In 1934 a young American named Lloyd Stone wrote a poem inspired by Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia Hymn.” His lyrics have inspired me for much of my life:
This is my song, Oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
I hope to meet often with the leaders of other nations, even those who are tyrants or even enemies. If I meet with a world leader or with the leader of a nation’s opposition, it does not mean that I endorse that leader or his agenda. Like the great Israeli statesman Abba Eban, I believe that when there are serious policy differences between nations, we should not sever relations, but rather increase diplomatic contacts so as to work together to resolve the problems. As Winston Churchill once said, “The reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment, but to secure a convenience.” In his Inaugural Address of 1961, President John F. Kennedy put it this way: “civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” To quote Ronald Reagan again: “Trust but verify; play, but cut the cards.”
I have met people, young and old, who see no point in studying history because they think it is not relevant to their lives. I agree that what happened yesterday or today has more impact on our lives than what happened one hundred years ago. But the decisions we make in our daily lives are strongly influenced by the generations that have preceded ours, whether we realize it or not. By learning about the ideas that were prevalent in other eras and the events that have taken place in the past, we are better able to understand aspects of the present which otherwise seem baffling, and we are more easily able to anticipate the trends of the future. The present, after all, is just a moving dot on the continuum connecting the past to the future.
I believe that the more American people know about their history and about how their government works, the stronger our nation becomes. We should not sit back and let our leaders operate without oversight, and merely complain when they do something really wrong. As President Jimmy Carter said in his Farewell Address, “Within our system of government every American has a right and duty to help shape the future course of the United States. Thoughtful criticism and close scrutiny of all government officials by the press and the public are an important part of our democratic society.”
I believe in the power of knowledge. It is often said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” In some cases this may be true. But no knowledge at all is much more dangerous than “a little knowledge,” and acquiring more than a little knowledge is the best of all.
However, as important as knowledge is, the greatest discoveries and accomplishments could not have been achieved with knowledge alone. As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Imagination is the quality that allows us to dream about what the world could be, and knowledge is the material that allows us to turn those dreams into reality.
Some people seem frightened by the prospect of learning about belief systems other than their own, as if exposing themselves to a variety of religious and political ideas will pollute them or confuse them or upset their balance. I believe that the opposite is true. Learning about other religions helps us to better understand our own. It also makes it easier to comprehend world events. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Americans, knowing nothing about the teachings of Islam, assumed that all Muslims were potential terrorists. But for those Americans who took the time to learn about the basic tenets of Islam, it became clear that the 9/11 terrorists and others of their ilk were extremely rare exceptions in a religious community that encompasses almost a billion and a half people.
The United States is a nation blessed with abundant resources, but none of these resources is as great as the American people themselves. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, yet the U.S. leads the world in Nobel Prize winners, Olympic medal winners and in gross domestic product. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and we should not hesitate to explore new methods and new ideas, including those from other nations. For example, we spend more money per person on health care than any country in the world. Yet we do not seem to be getting our money’s worth. Forty-three countries have more doctors per capita than the United States. Twenty-nine nations have a lower infant death rate, and twenty-eight have a longer life expectancy. In each of these health-related categories, the U.S. position has steadily declined over the last twenty years. It is time to reverse this trend.
In preparing for this moment, I have thought a great deal about what a good president really does. The qualities it takes to make a successful presidential candidate are not the same qualities it takes to make a successful president. Watching television, one might think that the best president is one who can give a good speech and pose well at photo opportunities. I believe that the most important qualities of a successful president are those he displays away from the cameras, and, indeed, away from the public. Every morning the President of the United States sits down at his desk in the Oval Office and faces a series of problems dealing with both domestic and international affairs. As each of these problems comes my way, I intend to sit quietly and read potential solutions to the problem and then to have my advisors debate these solutions before me. After these consultations, I will make my decisions…and then move on to the next problem.
It is a great honor to serve as President of the United States, a great honor and a great responsibility. U.S. presidents have so much power that they are often tempted, while in office, to forget that that power belongs to the office and not to the man or woman who occupies it. My own father once wrote that “life is not a daily dying, not a pointless end, not ashes-to-ashes and dust-to-dust, but a soaring and blinding gift snatched from eternity.” The American voters have bestowed on me a special gift. I promise never to forget that although I may hold more power than anyone else in the world, I am only a custodian of that power. The true guardians of that power are the American people as a whole, and no matter who occupies the White House, it is the American people who give him the strength to represent our nation. I will do my best to use my position and its power to make the United States a better place, but, in the end, presidents come and go, while the spirit of our people remains.