Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Miller Center’s Balogh Explains Why Obama’s Second Inaugural Matters

Barack Obama Takes Oath of Office, January 2013

United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to President Barack Obama during the Inaugural swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on 21 January 2013. White House photo by Sonya Hebert, PD.

Brian Balogh, the Compton Professor at the Miller Center and the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, opines on CNN.com that President Obama’s second inaugural address matters because future historians will mark it as the moment the president explained why he is a progressive:

The programs that Obama called for were characteristically liberal: reaffirming the social safety net, equal pay for women, etc. Nothing new here -- just the Obama classic.

What differed this time, and what this moment was made for (to twist the president's own words) was articulating the progressive rationale for these programmatic ends. "Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action," Obama proudly told the nation...

His second election behind him, Obama linked his fate and the nation's to a rationale that propelled tens of millions of Americans into the middle class. By making collective action explicit, Obama yoked a century-old progressive agenda to the nation's founding documents and its past history. "Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people." To achieve America's lofty goals of "life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will require back watching, backslapping and no shortage of back-scratching as well.

Read Brian’s full op-ed here.

A Tale of Two Inaugurals: Comparing Clinton to Obama

President Bill Clinton Delivers his second Inaugural Address on January 20, 1997.

Second inaugurals tend to meet with less fanfare than their predecessors. However, to say that they lack the same significance oversells the point. Rather, they present a unique opportunity. For example, some Presidents may use the opportunity to signal a political pivot while others may choose to double down on their first term.

Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, delivered January 20, 1997, is an excellent example of the former. For long stretches it simply reinvigorated the base. However, for those with an acute ear, there are telling signs of a more conciliatory term to come.  

The move to the center that defined his second term was exemplified by decrying the omniscience of the state:

As times change, so government must change. We need a new government for a new century – humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves; a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less.

In clearly suggesting that the idea of shrinking government was up for debate, Clinton opened the window for then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Honoring MLK in the Inaugural

Reagan Speech on the Creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday, November 2, 1983

The theme of this year’s inauguration is “Our People, Our Future,” a theme intended to promote national unity and reconciliation as most inaugurals do. In a Presidential Inaugural Committee video released over the weekend, President Obama noted that two men he admires more than anyone in American history are Dr. Martin Luther King and President Abraham Lincoln because without them, he would not be in office. The inaugural weekend once again featured a “Day of Service” because the public ceremony falls on the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday. President Obama told the country:

The inauguration reminds us of the role we have as citizens in promoting a common good as well as making sure we carry out our individual responsibilities.

President Obama will be sworn into his second term using the bibles of Dr. King and President Lincoln, bringing additional significance to the inaugural ceremonies as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King’s speech to the participants in the August 1963 march was one of the most memorable moments and he roused the crowd by addressing the racial injustices and discrimination that continued to plague the nation 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He criticized the nation for defaulting on a “promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned”:

Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

In some of the most powerful lines of the speech, Dr. King told the crowd he had a dream. Among his dreams was that his “four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Reagan Wanted to Announce Conclusion of the Iran Hostage Crisis in his Inaugural

Vice President George Bush and other VIP's wait to welcome the former hostages to Iran home.

Vice President George Bush and other VIP’s wait to welcome the former hostages to Iran home. Andrews Air Force Base, 27 January 1981. Photo by Templeton. PD.

January 20th marks not only the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration as president of the United States in 1981, but also the release of 52 American hostages who were held in Iran for 444 days.

President Reagan had hoped to make announcement regarding the release of hostages in his inaugural address and, in fact, wrote an insert of his own for that contingency. If the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, he was going to get a signal, and then he was going to announce to the country that the hostages were released. Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, argued with him about making the announcement during the inaugural. According to Khachigian, who gave his account of the matter during a Miller Center symposium:

I said it would interrupt the historical quality of the speech, that he could easily do something about that after the speech. It wouldn’t fit into the nature of the inaugural address. But had they been released during that speech and had he gotten that signal, he would have read that insert.

Of course the hostages were released shortly after Reagan took the Oath of Office on the day Jimmy Carter departed, but not early enough for Reagan to receive the signal and include the announcement in his inaugural address.

In short diary entries in the days following the Inauguration, Reagan wrote about the conclusion of the crisis:  

Hostages will arrive in country tomorrow. It seems some of them had tough questions for Carter in Germany as to why they were there so long and why there were there to begin with.

Ceremony on S. Lawn to welcome hostages home. Thousands of people in attendance. Met the familys [sic] earlier. Now we had in addition the familys [sic] of the 8 men who lost their lives in the rescue attempt. One couple lost their only son. His widow was also here. I’ve had a lump in my throat all day.

Check out these interviews conducted for the Miller Center's Jimmy Carter Oral History Project, which offer insights into not only how the President and his team handled the hostage crisis for the U.S. government, but also how the crisis crippled Carter's 1980 re-election campaign. Interviews for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project also shed light on how Reagan's team viewed the situation, and how they approached it even before the nation's 40th President was inaugurated.

Inaugural Addresses: Insider Accounts of How and Why They Matter

Panel on Inaugural Addresses with Presidential Speechwriters Ray Price (Nixon); Don Baer (Clinton); Patrick Anderson (Carter)

The inaugural address is one of the most important speeches a president will give. It has a special place in political life because it documents the history of the nation. Indeed, as Ken Khachigian, the chief speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, noted:

One thing that struck me about reading all the inaugural addresses is that they are a history of America. You can go through, beginning with Washington, and you can learn all about the country just by reading them. If you did nothing else, you’d know almost all about the history of the Civil War, about the Depression, about World War I, about World War II, and about the Vietnam War.

Don Baer, speechwriter for Bill Clinton, summed up the importance of the inaugural address as “the one communal national monument that we have had right along, throughout the entire history of country.” And Ray Price speechwriter for Richard Nixon, called the inaugural a “ceremonial speech with a programmatic content” and “one of the great sacraments of democracy.” He said the opening lines of Nixon’s first inaugural summed up what the sacrament is:

“Senator [Everett] Dirksen, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, President Johnson, Vice President [Hubert] Humphrey, my fellow Americans, and my fellow citizens of the world community, I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.”

In June 2008, the Miller Center hosted a symposium on presidential speechmaking that featured nine former Republican and Democratic speechwriters who served every president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton.  One of the sessions included a discussion on Inaugural Addresses. The session provided an insider account of writing the inaugural address, what makes an effective inaugural and what the addresses should be about. In this post, we highlight some of their key insights.

Patrick Anderson, speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, noted that in an inaugural address, you introduce yourself as President, you are no longer just a candidate:

It is solemn. It is historic. I think it I also, under the surface, a very competitive situation, because you are very aware that you are going to be judged against [John F.] Kennedy and [Ronald] Reagan and other great speeches of the past – which tends to inspire both the candidate and his writers to make their best effort. It shouldn’t be partisan or political. It should be inspirational and personal, I think. It should be an attempt to unite the nation for a new start, which all new presidents think they’re going to accomplish.

Baer added:

I think that inaugural addresses ought to be elevating. I think they need to remind the nation more of what we have in common than what divides us.

More Inaugural Memories from Our Oral History Archives

Jimmy Carter Inauguration

Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration, January 20, 1977. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. PD.

One aide to George H.W. Bush called the Inaugural the “biggest day” of any commander in chief’s life.  Today we bring you some more inaugural memories from the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program archives. 

Max Friedersdorf, staff director for the Senate Republican Policy Committee, discussed how Jimmy Carter’s domestic policy advisor, Hamilton Jordon got in “deep do-do” with House Speaker Tip O’Neill  when he didn’t get the Speaker enough Inaugural Ball tickets in 1977:

Well, first thing that happened, they got in deep do-do with Speaker O’Neill and they never recovered the whole four years. Hamilton Jordan also got cross-wise with the Speaker. After a while, [Frank] Moore hired Bill Cable and Dan Tate, who were Hill people. Great guys, perfect, but they should’ve been brought in at the start. He didn’t hire anybody. He was just going to do it himself. He didn’t return a phone call from Tip O’Neill and he didn’t get him all the tickets he wanted for the inaugural and Tip never ever let him off the hook. He couldn’t get in Tip O’Neill’s office; he was barred. Congressional relations barred! So when we got up there we never had any contact with him whatsoever, none. In the two years, I never saw Frank Moore. And I don’t think any of the Republican Senators or staff—I think they’d tell you the same thing. I don’t know where they were. But I think that was part of Carter’s problem, obviously.

President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, discussed having President Carter sign off on a restricting of the national security team during an Inaugural gala: 

I sat down with him [Carter] one evening and we worked on a formula for two committees. One committee would be called PRC—Policy Review Committee, which would deal with long-range policy issues and would be chaired by a Secretary. Prior to each meeting, the notion was that I would submit a memo to Carter informing him that a PRC is to be held on such and such a topic and that I recommend that the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense chair it. You approve it. The other committee would be called SCC—Special Coordination Committee, and that would be for crosscutting interagency issues. I would chair that committee. The three crosscutting agency issues would be: covert activity, arms control, and price management. Carter loved that. I drew up with David Aaron, my deputy, a memorandum which we called presidential directive because we changed the names of the previous papers. I took it to the Kennedy Center, at the time of the presidential gala the evening before the inaugural, and during intermission got Carter out and had him sign it, and the next day at 3 p.m. right after the inaugural I had messengers deliver copies of it to Brown and to Vance and to whoever was acting before Turner to inform them of the new arrangements. They were surprised.

William H. Webster, FBI Director, recounted watching the 1981 inaugural parade:

I can mention one funny incident, at the inauguration. We were invited and we sat up in that upper area where officials sit during the inauguration. We had a great view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the FBI, and I had invited a number of people to come back and watch the parade from my office space on the seventh floor, including some of George Bush’s relatives, I’m trying to think who all they were. A lot of family people came up. But I needed to get back. So they’d arranged to get us in a car which was parked outside and head down Pennsylvania Avenue. Right alongside us was the young son… Young Ron, Ronnie. He didn’t have the right license plates. He was to be the first car in Pennsylvania Avenue and they wouldn’t let him go, he didn’t have the right license plates. That put our car first going down from Capitol Hill. My late wife, Drue, was wearing a red coat. The only other person wearing a red coat was Nancy Reagan. We were starting down, these people were looking in, Now who is this? They didn’t realize that Reagan had gone to have lunch with Congressmen. So yes, they started waving, so we started waving back. We had a wonderful time all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Inaugural Memories from Our Oral History Archives

Ronald Reagan delivers his first Inaugural Address.

A view of Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, as he delivers his Inaugural address from a specially built platform in front of the Capitol during the Inauguration Day celebration. PD.

One aide to George H.W. Bush called the Inaugural the “biggest day” of any commander in chief’s life. From the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program archives, we bring you some inaugural memories. These excerpts also appeared in the Washington Post on January 11, 2013.

President Jimmy Carter discussed the legislative horse-trading on his 1977 Inauguration Day:

I had several meetings with the Georgia [congressional] delegation, either private breakfasts at the White House or even before I went to the inauguration. We had a tacit understanding that if I really needed them on an issue of importance that I would let them know directly and they would make every effort to support me, even though it was damaging for them at home. But if I didn’t really need them, they would vote in accordance with what they thought was best for them and their own constituents.

Frank Moore, Carter’s congressional liaison discussed picking an office at the White House:

I remember [John F. Kennedy aide] Larry O’Brien telling me when I asked him about it. He said it was the damnedest thing: All of them ran from the inaugural platform to the White House. . . . Guys were moving desks because nobody made any assignments. He saw that all the offices on the ground were going to be taken, so he ran up the steps to sort of an attic, where boxes were stored. . . . He said it worked out great. In fact, he advised me not to get on the first floor. I asked why. He said: “Well, you have tourists and people coming in, plus you can’t have a beer or take your shoes off down there. You guys will get back from the Hill late at night, and you will want to take your tie off and sit around and talk, and it’s hard to do that downstairs. You’ll always get interrupted.” And he was right.

Michael Deaver, deputy chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, discussed his first impressions of the Oval Office:

Walking into that office with [Reagan] — he sat down behind the desk . . . and before he opened that drawer that had Carter’s note in it, he looked over at me. He had both his hands on the desk, and he looked at me and said, “Have you got goose bumps?”

Lloyd Cutler, White House counsel to Carter, discussed the final moments of the Iran Hostage Crisis. American hostages in Iran were released shortly after Reagan’s 1981 inaugural speech:

I don’t think I went to bed from sometime on Sunday morning until Tuesday after the day of the inauguration. After [President Carter] had gone with the Reagans up to the Hill and the actual inauguration ceremony had begun, I was still sitting on that telephone waiting for the final word on when the [American] hostages’ plane had actually taken off from Tehran. . . . About 1:30, finally, with something under each arm and a couple of other people helping me carry things out as I walked out of that West Wing basement, something caught my eye. Instead of the photographs that I was accustomed to looking at — [Carter] with the pope, meeting with Brezhnev in Vienna, et cetera — there were photographs of Ronald Reagan and his dog. By 1:30 on January 20, the transition had happened, the new photos were up, everything was ready for the new president to return to his White House.

Some Historical Perspective on the Debt Limit Debate

President Ronald Reagan’s First Press Conference in which he addresses raising the debt limit.

While pundits speculate what actions President Obama and the Treasury Department might take to avoid the next standoff with Congress over raising the debt limit, it’s worth taking a moment to briefly examine history.

Debates over the nation’s debt have been a reoccurring fact of American political life since the country’s inception. That Congress is seeking to assert control over the nation’s debt is nothing new. In fact, in the 19th century, Congress was far more in control of the nation’s debt than it is today by authorizing borrowing for specified purposes or specifying which types of financial instruments the Treasury could employ, as well as other details of debt terms such as interests rates.

While Congress has always asserted some form of control over the nation’s debt as a means to assert its Constitutional powers with regards to taxing, spending and initiation of war, over the last century it has increasingly delegated independence of action to the Treasury Department. One of the most significant turning points in the relationship was the 1917 Second Liberty Bond Act, in which Congress granted the Treasury Department the authority to issue debt needed to fund government operations as long as the total debt did not exceed a stated ceiling. The Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 helped finance the U.S. entry into World War I and gave the Treasury greater ability to respond to changing conditions and more flexibility in financial management while still retaining some Congressional control. In 1939, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Congress enacted legislation that created the first aggregate limit covering nearly all public debt. On the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II, H.R. 5748, further delegated independence of action on the debt to the Treasury.

Memorable Moments in Recent Inaugural History

Check out this video compiled by our Communications Team for look back at some memorable moments in past Inaugural Addresses from JFK to Clinton.

How Will Hagel Tackle the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower Warned of?

Closeup of page from a draft of Eisenhower's farewell address, showing the phrase:

Closeup of page from a draft of Eisenhower’s farewell address, showing the phrase the address made famous: “military-industrial complex”; the speech was delivered on January 17, 1961. PD

The year was 1961. America’s General was stepping down. In his place, a King readied for coronation. President Eisenhower’s years in the spotlight were at an end.

The composition of JFK’s inaugural was filled with speechwriting lore. The words are immortal. Thus, it comes as no surprise that President Eisenhower’s farewell address, given three days earlier, went largely overlooked.

However, what began as a historical footnote has seen a renaissance.  With each passing year, his words become increasingly prescient. The 29 drafts put in were apparently well worth the effort. Eisenhower began:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

There is certainly nothing surprising in this opening passage, but the tone changes. Eisenhower pivoted to the nexus of his address: military spending. More specifically, he was concerned with a new status quo that had emerged, including under his own leadership, following World War II. Specifically, spending on arms had become entrenched as an economic norm.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

1877: An Inaugural Agenda for Civil Service Reform

Torpedoes in His Path: Can he, with that load, get through without exploding them?

“Torpedoes in His Path: Can he, with that load, get through without exploding them?” By Joseph Keppler. Published in Puck Magazine: Centerfold; Vol. 1 No. 1, March 14, 1877. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes is perhaps one of the most underappreciated presidents (CSPAN Historians rank him 33rd). Although he ascended to the presidency in one of the most contested and controversial elections, “Rud” was an intelligent man and honest man who sought to reform the federal government even the face of a hostile Congress and in an era of Congressional dominance.

One of the priorities of President Hayes was to reform the system of civil service appointments, which had been based on a spoils system since the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Rather than doling out federal jobs to political supporters, Hayes called for awarding jobs based on merit. Hayes’ civil service reform success, even if it was limited, was significant for a couple reasons. First, Hayes’ efforts set  “a significant precedent as well as the political impetus for the Pendleton Act of 1883,” which was signed into law by none other than President Chestur A. Arthur. Second, in a period marked by Congressional dominance, Hayes restored the President’s constitutional power of appointments. While Congress could suggest those whom they thought should be nominated for federal jobs, by the end of the Hayes administration, senators and congressman no longer dictated these appointments to the president.

Hayes laid out his civil service reform agenda in his Inaugural Address on March 5, 1877:

I ask the attention of the public to the paramount necessity of reform in our civil service--a reform not merely as to certain abuses and practices of so-called official patronage which have come to have the sanction of usage in the several Departments of our Government, but a change in the system of appointment itself; a reform that shall be thorough, radical, and complete; a return to the principles and practices of the founders of the Government. They neither expected nor desired from public officers any partisan service. They meant that public officers should owe their whole service to the Government and to the people. They meant that the officer should be secure in his tenure as long as his personal character remained untarnished and the performance of his duties satisfactory. They held that appointments to office were not to be made nor expected merely as rewards for partisan services, nor merely on the nomination of members of Congress, as being entitled in any respect to the control of such appointments… 

The President of the United States of necessity owes his election to office to the suffrage and zealous labors of a political party, the members of which cherish with ardor and regard as of essential importance the principles of their party organization; but he should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves the country best. 

FDR Addresses Congress 60 Years Ago: ‘Arsenal of democracy is making good.’

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1943 State of the Union Address

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Sixty years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress. President Roosevelt didn’t lay out any legislative proposals but instead focused on the events and needs of the world war. “I think the arsenal of democracy is making good,” Roosevelt told the 78th Congress and the nation in his January 7, 1943 address.

Just two years before, Roosevelt had delivered his “Four Freedoms” speech. Roosevelt used the occasion of the 1943 State of the Union to remind the country that “freedom from want,” which he defined as the right of employment and the right of assurance against life’s hazards, would be a significant task facing the country in the coming years. Furthermore, the extension of two new rights in the Four Freedoms speech – “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” – beyond what had been guaranteed by the Constitution promised a significant expansion of the federal government. Roosevelt linked these two freedoms and justified their pursuit as necessary to the future prosperity of the nation in his address to the 78th Congress and the nation in 1943:

In this war of survival we must keep before our minds not only the evil things we fight against but the good things we are fighting for. We fight to retain a great past—and we fight to gain a greater future.
Let us remember, too, that economic safety for the America of the future is threatened unless a greater economic stability comes to the rest of the world. We cannot make America an island in either a military or an economic sense. Hitlerism, like any other form of crime or disease, can grow from the evil seeds of economic as well as military feudalism.
Victory in this war is the first and greatest goal before us. Victory in the peace is the next. That means striving toward the enlargement of the security of man here and throughout the world—and, finally, striving for the fourth freedom—freedom from fear.

Read and listen to the full address here.

Friday Feature: Riding the Tiger Off a Cliff

Unidentified aids deliver pizzas to House Democrats during a late night planning session, 1/1/2013. (Cropped photo from Reuters, featured in MSN PHOTOblog.)

Well, for now, we've avoided cascading off the great "Fiscal Cliff" of 2012/2013. Time will tell if the 11th- (13th?) hour deal will have lasting effects on the state of the economy, or of congressional gridlock, in general. (Prospects aren't looking so good.)

There is one thing we know for sure: at least part of the brainpower stopping us from careening off the cliff was fueled by America's favorite late-night food: pizza. Stacks and stacks of delicious lukewarm delivery pizza.

Stay tuned! Every Friday we'll highlight an interesting item from presidential history.

On the votes against Boehner

Check out GAGE Faculty Associate Jeff Jenkins' perspective on the historical defections in the vote for House Speaker in his guest post at The Monkey Cage.

1845: The First Dark Horse Inaugural

Scan of a page from the Illustrated London News, v. 6, April 19, 1845.

Scan of a page from the Illustrated London News, v. 6, April 19, 1845, with the first newspaper illustrations of an American presidential inauguration this being for James K. Polk on March 4, 1845. Courtesy of Library of Congress. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT is featuring an inaugural address by a president from the Miller Center’s archives.

In December, President Obama threatened to use his Inaugural Address to appeal to public opinion and blame Republicans if there was no deal over the nation’s austerity crisis before New Year’s. Now that some compromise has been reached, the fiscal cliff may not dominate the address on January 21. However, given that the next round of negotiations on the nation’s debt and taxation is now less than two months away, the President will certainly use the Inaugural to once again appeal to the public and lay out his policy agenda. Tariffs, taxes and banking were also the subjects of the Inaugural Address of one of the most significant, if little known presidents of the 19th century.

Not many Americans know James Knox Polk, but they should. He was a rather consequential president and an astute political leader who fought the Mexican War; expanded the Union to the Southwest and West; and solidified national economic policy. Polk was the first dark horse candidate ever to be nominated by a major political party and elected to the presidency. His candidacy was made possible after Martin van Buren committed political suicide by opposing the annexation of Texas. Polk beat Henry Clay by the closest margin in history —1,338,464 popular votes to Clay's 1,300,097—a difference of 38,367 votes. Even though Clay won five slave states, including Polk’s home state of Tennessee and North Carolina, Polk netted 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105. As president, Polk's agenda was driven by four of the most contentious issues of the Jacksonian Era: territorial expansion, slavery, banking, and the tariff. Polk assumed the presidency with a focused political agenda.

At his Inauguration on March 4, 1845, Polk spoke at length about his political agenda and the convictions of his positions. Polk promised to administer the government in the true spirit of the Constitution and promised not to assume any powers not expressed or implied in the document:

The government of the United States is one of delegated and limited powers, and it is by a strict adherence to the clearly granted powers and by abstaining from the exercise of doubtful or unauthorized implied powers that we have the only sure guaranty against the recurrence of those unfortunate collisions between the federal and state authorities which have occasionally so much disturbed the harmony of our system and even threatened the perpetuity of our glorious Union.