US President Joe Biden reacts as he prepares to deliver his inaugural address on the West Front of the US Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Tasos Katopodis | AFP | Getty Images
Standing in the spot where a deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol had taken place two weeks earlier, President Joe Biden delivered an inaugural address that used the word “democracy” more times than any other inauguration speech in U.S. history.
“This is America’s day. This is democracy’s day,” Biden said at the start of the speech. “The will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We have learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Biden used the word 11 times throughout his address. That ranks ahead of addresses from Harry Truman, who said “democracy” nine times in his 1949 address, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did the same during his third swearing-in ceremony in 1941, according to a CNBC analysis of speeches from the American Presidency Project. The project is an archive of public documents maintained by the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“What was fascinating to me about it was that he started and ended with democracy,” said Bill Antholis, the director and CEO of the Miller Center, a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship.
Antholis, who is a former managing director at the Brookings Institution and served in the Clinton administration, attributed the theme of Biden’s speech to the Capitol riot and the events that preceded it.
“I think this was a very different speech than the one that would have been written if Trump had conceded on the morning of Nov. 4,” Antholis said. “And since the riot attacked both the physical symbol and a key proceeding in our democracy, Biden was speaking to a very current moment.”
Most frequent uses of the word “democracy” in presidential inaugural addresses
- Joe Biden (2021): 11
- Harry Truman (1949): 9
- Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third address (1941): 9
- Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second address (1937): 7
- George H.W. Bush (1989): 5
- Bill Clinton’s second address (1997): 4
- Bill Clinton’s first address (1993): 4
- Warren G. Harding (1921): 4
- William Henry Harrison (1841): 4
Antholis noted that the term “democracy” became more commonly used in political speech during the 20th century, around the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, which began in 1913. A former professor of political science, Wilson embraced the term. Antholis said that Truman and Roosevelt saw themselves as “Wilsonians,” which might explain their use of the phrase.
Wednesday’s speech was also a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s inaugural address four years ago, when Trump spoke of “American carnage.”
“One of the things that was striking was the normalcy of a very moving ceremony and the way he spoke about democracy as enduring,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and a former director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton.
“The pictures that the word carnage conveys are horrible,” said Kathleen Kendall, a research professor of communication at the University of Maryland. “Biden did the opposite. I’d say that his main point is that America has been tested and has risen to the challenge.”
Words such as “America,” “democracy” and “unity,” all of which Biden used, are words most Americans look upon favorably and respond to positively, Kendall added.