In this ongoing series, the Miller Center’s First Year Project looks at key phrases from past inaugural addresses—the first words spoken by our new presidents. Today we look at Bill Clinton.
After easily dispatching his rivals for the Democratic Party nomination, Bill Clinton defeated incumbent President George H.W. Bush and third party rival Ross Perot in the 1992 election by focusing on the economy. A recession had left many frustrated with President Bush, and with Perot earning 19 percent of the popular vote, Clinton won the presidency in an electoral landslide even though most Americans had voted for somebody else.
Nonetheless, the contest was an unambiguous call for change. Clinton and Perot combined to receive 62 percent of the popular vote, and Clinton began his transition into the presidency promising to focus "like a laser beam" on the economic needs of the nation: unemployment, the runaway deficit, the health care crisis, and welfare reform. On all fronts but one, health care, he succeeded significantly but not completely, and during his Inaugural Address, he sought to harness the hunger for change by acknowledging frustration, pointing to history, and projecting hope for the future.
When our Founders boldly declared America's independence to the world and our purposes to the Almighty, they knew that America, to endure, would have to change; not change for change's sake but change to preserve America's ideals: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Though we marched to the music of our time, our mission is timeless. Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American.
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[T]he urgent question of our time is whether we can make change our friend and not our enemy. This new world has already enriched the lives of millions of Americans who are able to compete and win in it. But when most people are working harder for less; when others cannot work at all; when the cost of health care devastates families and threatens to bankrupt our enterprises, great and small; when the fear of crime robs law-abiding citizens of their freedom; and when millions of poor children cannot even imagine the lives we are calling them to lead, we have not made change our friend.
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Though our challenges are fearsome, so are our strengths. Americans have ever been a restless, questing, hopeful people. And we must bring to our task today the vision and will of those who came before us. From our Revolution to the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights movement, our people have always mustered the determination to construct from these crises the pillars of our history.
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We must invest more in our own people, in their jobs, and in their future, and at the same time cut our massive debt. And we must do so in a world in which we must compete for every opportunity. It will not be easy. It will require sacrifice, but it can be done and done fairly, not choosing sacrifice for its own sake but for our own sake. We must provide for our Nation the way a family provides for its children.
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This beautiful Capital, like every capital since the dawn of civilization, is often a place of intrigue and calculation. Powerful people maneuver for position and worry endlessly about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, forgetting those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way. Americans deserve better. And in this city today there are people who want to do better. And so I say to all of you here: Let us resolve to reform our politics so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people.
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Today we do more than celebrate America. We rededicate ourselves to the very idea of America, an idea born in revolution and renewed through two centuries of challenge; an idea tempered by the knowledge that, but for fate, we, the fortunate, and the unfortunate might have been each other.
Read more about Bill Clinton.
Read or watch Clinton’s entire Inaugural Address.