Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address, on January 20 1981, was a skillfully presented political speech. Newly elected presidents do not usually make detailed policy statements on this occasion, since following the election their opinions on the great issues of the day and their intended legislative program and policies are widely known. Typically, inaugural addresses are inspirational and visionary, setting out what will be the tone and general policy direction of the incoming administration. Often, there is a note of celebration following the victory but also, since many Americans voted for a different candidate, there is a call for unity and the affirmation that of whatever party the president will serve all Americans. In certain circumstances, the address may be a little solemn, such as during wartime or a time of crisis. This is not lacking from Reagan’s first address. The American economy was less healthy than it had been in the 1960s and America’s image around the world was tarnished. The occupation by Iran of the American Embassy had proved popular especially in Muslim countries, which agreed with the Iranian leader that Americans were arrogant and tried dominate and dictate to the rest of the world. Reagan did not begin, however, with foreign policy but with the domestic situation, setting out the board outline of his policy for governance and for the economy, what some refer to as “small government” and “reaganomics”.
Reagan’s defeated opponent, Jimmy Carter, had appeared to blame Americans for the decline in prosperity. Reagan blamed government, which had grown too big, which taxed the people too heavily and failed to produce results. Reagan promised the people of America that he would place power and the ability to take decisions about their lives back into their own hands. He called for “self-governance” also saying that the role of state government would be restored, since just as the people had created the government not vice versa, t so had the states. Government should serve the people, not the special interests. Indeed, said Reagan, he intended to re-define the term “special interest” so that it referred to ordinary, hard working Americans. Americans, he claimed, are the hardest working people in the world and should not be blamed for the excesses of government. Although he did not explicitly state this, the policy implication of what he said was that lower tax and less government spending would put more money into the pockets of citizens. By spending this money, they would grow the economy. They would also be able to use their money to buy the health care, education and other services of their choice rather than expecting a big brother government to do everything for them. On foreign policy, Reagan said that America would rebuild relations with her allies, would respect other’s sovereignty, would use force reluctantly but would do so when freedom was threatened. Terrorism would not be tolerated, a somewhat prophetic statement. Was this an effective speech? Reagan’s articulation of his small-government policy was crystal clear. Directed at ordinary citizens, whom he praised, this was designed to renew pride in the America dream. He was criticizing the politicians not citizens for being profligate. Known as the great communicator, Reagan knew how to deliver his speeches so that they spoke to his target audience. People felt that he was taking them into his confidence, and admired him for this. Most inaugural addresses seek to communicate to the people first, to politicians second. Reagan called ordinary Americans “heroes” reminding them that sacrifice would be involved in the process of economic recovery yet making them feel “good” at the same time. Speaking from the West Front of the Capitol was part of the theater of the occasion, enabling more people to witness the event.
Reagan, Ronald. Inaugural Address. January 20, 1981.