Obama Could Be Just the Third President in History to Mention the Environment at an Inauguration

  • Published on January 19th, 2009

2005 presidential inauguration of george w. bush

There will be many firsts during the course of Tuesday’s Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama, but mentioning the environment in the inaugural address will not be one of them: though pretty darn close.

[Update: While President Obama did not use the actual word “environment”, he spoke both directly and indirectly about the environment more so than any of his predecessors. See those references.]


Past presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Calvin Coolidge have referred to the development and wise use of our “natural resources.”  The language in these earlier environmental references was infused with the themes of conservation and preservation as opposed to pollution and ecological balance.

Conspicuously absent throughout the history of inaugural addresses have been allusions to the major energy and environmental issues of the time. In fact, only two presidents in this country’s history have even mentioned the word “environment” in this context; and they each used both of their opportunities.

Richard M. Nixon

nixon inauguration

Richard M. Nixon is often overlooked for having ushered in the most aggressive environmental policies in this country’s history. Under Nixon’s watch the U.S. government passed the National Environmental Policy Act, The Clean Water Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency. This is what Nixon had to say about the environment in his two inaugural addresses:

In 1969:

“In pursuing our goals of full employment, better housing, excellence in education; in rebuilding our cities and improving our rural areas; in protecting our environment and enhancing the quality of life—in all these and more, we will and must press urgently forward.”

In 1973:

“We have the chance today to do more than ever before in our history to make life better in America—to ensure better education, better health, better housing, better transportation, a cleaner environment—to restore respect for law, to make our communities more livable—and to insure the God-given right of every American to full and equal opportunity.”

William J. Clinton

bill clinton inauguration

Bill Clinton moved into the White House with an ambitious agenda to restore some of the federal regulatory guidance removed by his Republican predecessors. In both of his inaugural addresses, Clinton returned environmental themes to the January 20 podium. This is what he said:

In 1993:

“Let us resolve to make our government a place for what Franklin Roosevelt called ‘bold, persistent experimentation,’ a government for our tomorrows, not our yesterdays.

Let us give this capital back to the people to whom it belongs. To renew America, we must meet challenges abroad as well at home. There is no longer division between what is foreign and what is domestic—the world economy, the world environment, the world AIDS crisis, the world arms race—they affect us all.”

In 1997:

“In these four years, we have been touched by tragedy, exhilarated by challenge, strengthened by achievement. America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation. Once again, our economy is the strongest on Earth. Once again, we are building stronger families, thriving communities, better educational opportunities, a cleaner environment. Problems that once seemed destined to deepen now bend to our efforts: our streets are safer and record numbers of our fellow citizens have moved from welfare to work.”

Inaugural addresses are usually not long on the specifics of policy. Rather, they are known more for their recollections of American excellence; for their inspiring visions of working together and moving forward; and for their calls upon Americans to serve their country.

While it is likely Barack H. Obama will continue in this vein on Tuesday when he addresses the country for the first time as president, he is too much of a policy wonk to avoid specifics altogether. And considering the focus he has put on climate change and building a new energy economy with green jobs, there is an excellent chance he will delve into those area on Tuesday, thereby joining the ranks of a very small group.

Images: Library of Congress
Sources: Full text of inaugural addresses available at Bartleby.com

About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.