The presidential kick-off speech holds a special place in the American imagination. From Abraham Lincoln's second, dramatized in this year's Steven Spielberg movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, to Franklin D. Roosevelt's first, immortalized by the line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the inaugural address has achieved mythical status in America. (Whole books have been written about John F. Kennedy's 1961 address -- a speech that was exactly 1,363 words long.) Interestingly, however, very few of the 56 inaugural speeches delivered to date have devoted much time to foreign policy.
Instead, most presidents have used their inaugurals to set out their domestic policy agendas. George Washington in 1789 warned of "party animosities" and extolled the virtues of "rectitude" and "patriotism"; FDR in 1933 called for wartime powers ... to fix the failing economy; and Ronald Reagan in 1981 laid out his vision for limited government. "[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," he declared in one of the speech's most memorable lines.
In his second inaugural, Barack Obama will almost certainly follow their lead. Economic recovery and the need to end partisan bickering are likely themes for his speech, as is the scourge of gun violence, which will probably get a line or two. But on the off chance that Obama decides to make a major foray into foreign policy, here's a list of six inaugural addresses that have done so in the past. The first he'll probably remember, since he delivered it four years ago.
OBAMA'S FIRST INAUGURAL
After an election that was fought in large part over America's role in the world, Obama used the occasion of his first inaugural to signal a new beginning in dealings with friends and foes alike. In an explicit rebuke of George W. Bush's era of unilateralism, Obama reminded Americans that past generations defeated fascism and communism "not just with missiles and tanks" but with "sturdy alliances." He also reached out to the Muslim world, where anger over the Iraq war still simmered and an aging cast of dictators had grown weary of the Bush administration's demands for political reform. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said.
But the most memorable line of the address was directed implicitly at Iran -- ringleader of Bush's "Axis of Evil" -- which remained hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons while repressing its own people. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history," he said, "but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." The Iranians were evidently unimpressed. The next day, a spokesman for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fired back that "Obama's is the hand of Satan in a new sleeve." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his part, opined that "the Great Satan now has a black face."
Obama's conciliatory tone played better among American liberals, who lauded the president for "breaking with the past," but it gave conservatives plenty of political ammunition when his subsequent overtures were rebuffed.
BUSH'S SECOND INAUGURAL
Four years after he vowed to build a more perfect democracy at home in his first inaugural address, Bush took his ambitious message global, delivering a lengthy paean to freedom that put dictators everywhere on notice that they were now in the crosshairs. "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."
Delivered just as Iraqis were preparing to elect a transitional government, Bush's speech made clear that democracy promotion would be the central pillar of American foreign policy in his second term. The "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" -- laid out in a 2003 speech at London's Whitehall Palace -- had morphed into a global project aimed at engineering a democratic peace. In Bush's words:
"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
The speech received mixed reviews even among conservatives. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that it left her "yearning for ... nuance," while liberal responses ran the gamut from "startling" to "the most un-American speech I've ever heard."