The inaugural address is tradition’s gift to a new President, a chance to gather the country together before the hard business of governing begins.
Donald Trump’s predecessors have seized these historic moments to issue calls for unity. Barack Obama, who took office in the midst of deepening economic crisis, used his first inaugural to steel the nation for the hardship ahead. George W. Bush, who became President in 2001 in the wake of a contested election, urged a “a new commitment to live out our nation’s promise through civility, courage, compassion, and character.”
Nobody knows how Trump, who on Friday at noon becomes the 45th U.S. President, intends to make use of his moment in history. But there is little to suggest that he will heed the road map sketched by past Presidents.
Trump has spent the weeks since Election Day practicing the same brand of us-against-them politics that won him the job. He’s feuded with U.S. intelligence chiefs, mocked political opponents and the media and carried on public spats with such luminaries as civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis. He has treated the presidential transition as a new phase in a permanent campaign, seizing chances to rally his core supporters and making few overtures to his opponents. He has refused to be boxed in by precedent.
That may have contributed to the fact that Trump will step to the podium on the west front of the Capitol as the least popular incoming president in at least four decades. Dozens of House Democrats are boycotting the ceremony, though Obama and both Bill and Hillary Clinton will attend. His inaugural address is a prime chance for him to try to reset his image and bind the wounds of a bitter election.
Aides have been tight-lipped about what to expect. Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the address will clock in at around 20 minutes. It will be a “philosophical document,” Spicer added, that lays out the themes that will anchor his first term. According to aides, the President-elect wrote the address personally. Lest anyone doubt it, Trump tweeted a photograph of himself with papers and a pen. (Upon closer inspection, however, the picture appears to have been taken at a receptionist’s desk.)
Specifics aside, the world is watching to see if Trump will deliver on his promise of becoming “so presidential,” or whether he will stick with what he knows. He has proven able to rein in the drama and theatrics when he wants to, such as in a speech he delivered last year about Israel. Still, he favors free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness addresses. Meeting with supporters on the eve of his inauguration, he departed from the remarks he drew from his jacket pocket to mock a senior Republican senator, John Cornyn of Texas, for soliciting donations from him over the years, and bragged that his Cabinet had the highest IQ in history.
Another unknown is who, exactly, will be running the country once Trump’s team arrives after the short bus ride from the Capitol. None of the members of his inner circle at the White House—chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the President-elect’s son-in-law—has served in government before, let alone at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
A sober speech would begin to alleviate widespread fears among members of both parties that the incoming President and his cohort are not prepared for the tasks ahead of them. Of the 690 political jobs that require Senate sign-off, Trump has nominated just 28. It is likely that Trump will spend his first weekend in power with just two Cabinet secretaries confirmed.
Many of the fellow Republicans who will attend the speech have been left to rely on scattered hints about how the Trump era will begin. Trump promised during the campaign to reverse many of Obama’s executive orders and restore some from the George W. Bush days that Obama scrapped. But even top Republicans have not been able to glean specifics and are likely to find out at the same time the public does.
Trump campaigned in broad promises to Make America Great Again, a phrase he copyrighted, as well as to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Questions about the specifics seldom drew answers; his supporters were willing to project their views and protect their candidate. The fury of an America First agenda powered him to the highest office in the land and is likely to be the gist of Trump’s first speech as President. It’s up to Trump to chart that course now. There really is no turning back.