Over the last thirty years, the United States has had six presidents: George H. W. Bush (1989-93), Bill Clinton (1993-2001), George W. Bush (2001-09), Barack Obama (2009-17), Donald J. Trump (2017-21), and Joe Biden (2021-present). Interestingly, the presidency has alternated between the Republican Party and Democratic Party over those thirty years.
An examination of the inaugural addresses of the six presidents would provide for a productive comparative analysis, as it would afford the opportunity to analyze across a single genre of speech. An inaugural address serves as a sort of mission statement for a given president or presidential administration. Another way of looking at it is that an inaugural address speaks to how the given president intends to create "a more perfect union," which entails the forging of unity and the practice of good (or better) government. Naturally, presidents who were elected for two terms delivered two inaugural addresses.
There are certain tendencies one might try to identify in the speeches. For example, inaugural addresses all mention both internal and external issues, or domestic and foreign policies, but to vastly varying degrees. There is also usually a small number of primary themes that echo throughout a speech. In the modern era, there are also Republican and Democratic tendencies. These are things one should try to tease out.
George H. W. Bush struck a victorious chord as communism was falling and hailed the successes of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. He was the only of the six presidents to follow a president belonging to the same political party. The future, it seemed to Bush, belonged to America. He reached out explicitly to the opposition, encouraged tolerance, and implicitly favored small government by speaking of mass community actions and the limits of the powers of the president, while championing American freedom and democracy.
Bill Clinton, in his first inaugural address, emphasized heavily the theme of renewal and spoke of America in a new global context, where the domestic cannot be separated from the foreign. He explicitly thanked his predecessor for his service but implied a larger paternalistic role for the government.
In his first inaugural address, George W. Bush thanked President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. He spoke of unity more directly than the preceding two presidents. He based his vision of unity on justice, opportunity, and the Christian notion of equality. Like his father, he leaned toward less government intervention in the economy based on the notion that economic woes always end up hurting the most vulnerable, but promised a bold stand against external enemies.
Barack Obama, in his first inaugural address, thanked his predecessor but quickly made clear his belief that America was in the midst of both a domestic and global crisis. The domestic crisis was an economic one and the global crisis one of violence and hate. He called on people to put aside petty factionalism and embrace bold action by both the government and the people for general prosperity.
Joe Biden was the first president of these six to not thank his predecessor for his service to the country. He directly invoked the idea of “a more perfect union.” Biden painted the picture of an America plagued by the COVID pandemic, economic troubles, and racial hatred. He then emphasized the importance of unity, using the term repeatedly.
The task of viewing recent history objectively is tremendously difficult if at all possible, but if one views each of these speeches as a sort of program intended to achieve concrete goals, things can be spelled out relatively dispassionately. The preceding summaries provide merely a glimpse.
The task of objectively deciding which had the best plan is bound to be even more challenging. Ultimately, if charged with this task, one has to judge whether the given president’s program for creating unity and bettering the government succeeded or failed, and to what degree, on the basis of some objective standards.