October 4, 2023

U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as he prepares to deliver his inaugural address on the Western Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Tasos Katopodis | AFP | Getty Images

Standing on the spot where there had been a deadly riot at the US Capitol two weeks earlier, President Joe Biden delivered an inaugural address that uses the word “democracy” more than any other inaugural address in US history.

“This is America’s day. This is democracy day,” said Biden at the beginning of the speech. “The will of the people was heard and the will of the people was 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 in his address. This precedes the addresses of Harry Truman, who said “democracy” nine times in his 1949 address, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also did so at his third swearing-in ceremony in 1941, according to a CNBC analysis of speeches by the American Presidential Project . The project is an archive of public documents maintained by the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“What fascinated me about it was that it started and ended with democracy,” said Bill Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center, a non-partisan subsidiary of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarships.

Antholis, former executive director of the Brookings Institution and a member of the Clinton administration, traced the subject of Biden’s speech back to the Capitol uprising 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 admitted on the morning of November 4th,” said Antholis. “And since the insurrection attacked both the physical symbol and a key process in our democracy, Biden spoke at a very timely moment.”

Most common use of the word “democracy” in the President’s inaugural speeches

  • 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 HW 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” was used more widely in political speech in the 20th century, during the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, which began in 1913. Wilson, a former political science professor, adopted the term. Antholis said that Truman and Roosevelt saw themselves as “Wilsonians,” which may explain their use of the term.

Wednesday’s speech was also in stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s inaugural address four years ago when Trump spoke of “American slaughter”.

“One of the things that stood out was the normality of a very moving ceremony and the way he talked about democracy as permanent,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and former director for Speechwriting for President Bill Clinton.

“The images that the word carnage convey are terrible,” said Kathleen Kendall, a research professor of communications at the University of Maryland. “Biden did the opposite. I would say his main point is that America has been tested and has risen to the challenge.”

Words like “America,” “democracy,” and “unity,” all used by Biden are words that most Americans see and respond positively to, Kendall added.