It is a moment that past presidents have used to appeal for national unity, but Donald Trump’s inaugural speech Friday represents a unique challenge — and opportunity — after a 10-week transition replete with electoral vainglory and frontal attacks on political rivals.
Trump will step to the lectern on the western front of the Capitol after being sworn in as the nation’s 45th president with a chance to strike an opening tone for an administration that has promised to torpedo business as usual in Washington.
The question is whether Trump, whose political identity has been built largely around his pugnacious Twitter feed, will use his longer-form oratory to offer a path toward healing the nation’s political divides that his predecessor, Barack Obama, acknowledged have grown more acute over the past eight years. Dozens of congressional Democrats have said they will boycott the inauguration.
By all accounts, Trump recognizes the symbolic importance of his address and has been personally engaged in crafting it along with a handful of senior advisers. He has delivered several dry-run rehearsals in recent days, aides said, and he has continued to make edits to the draft.
The computer-averse president-elect posted a photo on social media of himself holding a notepad and pen, purportedly taken as he worked on the speech several weeks ago at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
“It’s going to be a very personal and sincere statement about his vision for the country,” Sean Spicer, Trump’s incoming White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday.
Trump aides and others who have spoken with him said he is aiming for a compact speech — lasting less than 20 minutes — that comports with the “workmanlike” atmosphere of his inaugural weekend, which will feature fewer celebratory balls and a relatively brief parade.
He told historians in private that he was drawing inspiration from Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address in 1981, which focused on economic growth and curbing the federal bureaucracy, and from John F. Kennedy’s speech two decades earlier, in which he famously challenged the nation to demonstrate “what you can do for your country.”
Trump will discuss “what it means to be an American, the challenges that we face as members of the middle class,” Spicer said, noting that his boss could touch on the importance of infrastructure, education and manufacturing. “It’s going to be less of an agenda and more of a philosophical document, a vision of where he sees the country, the proper role of government, the role of citizens.”
Spicer said Trump also aims to “bring us together as one country and restore pride in our nation,” and Spicer cited the president-elect’s victory speech in November as a model. Trump won praise for his magnanimous tone after a bitter campaign when he said, after declaring victory over Hillary Clinton, that it is “time for America to bind the wounds of division” and pledged to be “president for all Americans.”
Trump is reportedly working with top policy aide Stephen Miller, as well as senior advisers Stephen K. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, on the inaugural address.
Douglas Brinkley, who was among a small group of historians who met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago after Christmas, said he expected him to strike unifying notes Friday. But Brinkley emphasized that inaugural addresses are judged as much by the “visuals” of the day — how large and enthusiastic the crowd is, for example, and what Trump’s demeanor is onstage with the Obamas and the Clintons.
During their discussion, Brinkley said he mentioned Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address that aimed to heal the wounds of the Civil War. “With malice towards none; with charity for all,” Lincoln declared in April 1865 in what most historians judge as among the most memorable inaugural addresses.
But Trump, 70, a former reality television producer, was less interested in Lincoln, Brinkley said, than he was in the more contemporary presidents of his lifetime who governed during the television era.
“He was thinking of how does one make this a good experience for the crowd,” Brinkley said. “He said, ‘No one likes a long-winded speech. There’s no such thing as too short.’ I don’t think this will go on and on with a bunch of flowery oratory.”
Trump was anything but brief during his Republican National Convention speech in July that clocked in at 1 hour, 15 minutes, the longest acceptance speech in at least four decades. That address, written in part by Miller, had dark and ominous overtones as Trump cited a “moment of crisis for our nation” and focused on threats “to our very way of life,” including terrorism and attacks on police.
A convention speech is, by its nature, a highly partisan affair. Yet since his more magnanimous victory speech, Trump has engaged in a steady stream of gloating and bullying against his rivals on Twitter and in public appearances.
He boasted, falsely, of having won the presidency in a “landslide,” and he dismissed a CNN correspondent as “fake news” and called BuzzFeed a “pile of garbage” at his only news conference since the election.
Last week, Trump accused Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, of being “all talk, talk, talk — no action or results” after Lewis questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency due to the alleged meddling of Russian operatives in the campaign.
Trump is taking the oath of office as the least-popular incoming president in at least four decades, with 40 percent of the public holding a favorable impression of him, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week.
In a Twitter message this week, Trump quoted the Rev. Franklin Graham, who said in a television appearance on Fox News that it “wasn’t Donald Trump that divided this country. This country has been divided for a long time.”
But “the problem for Trump is that he’s anything but a unifier,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and author.
If Trump makes a speech about national unity but “follows it up the next day or two with dismissive tweets,” Dallek said, “it’s going to kill the resonance of what he said.”