The flamethrower has been passed to a new generation, an older generation, bristling with resentments yet faithful to themes of the 2016 campaign.
Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address was one for the ages. For decades to come — no matter how his presidency is remembered — the bluntness of his words on a grey and rainy Friday afternoon will be recalled as a turning point, a fork in the winding road of American democracy.
After offering his appreciation to the Obamas for their help during the transition, Trump didn’t even pause for a grace note before switching to pitchfork populism. Other politicians, especially Al Gore in 2000, have run for president as a tribune of “the people versus the powerful.” But never before has a new president stood on the Capitol steps to declare, “For too long a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”
Trump never defined who that “small group” is. Did it just refer to the Democrats in the audience, including three former presidents, counting Barack Obama? Or was it a broader brush attack on Washington elitism — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who appeared especially pleased when Mike Pence, a traditional conservative, was sworn in as vice president?
Headline writers may define the Trump Inaugural Address by his apocalyptic promise that “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
But the more thematic passage was when Trump returned to a line that he used in his Republican convention speech in Cleveland: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Franklin Roosevelt popularized “the forgotten man” during the 1932 campaign as he depicted him as the unheralded worker at “the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
Trump may well be a president who, like automaker Henry Ford, believes that “history is bunk.” But it was striking how much borrowed 1930s imagery was embedded in the 16-minute speech.
Even though the slogan “America First” harks back to Charles Lindbergh and his isolationist (and sometimes anti-Semitic) movement against U.S. entry into World War II, Trump has continued to embrace it with a passion.
There was also an echo of FDR’s 1937 Inaugural Address as Trump portrayed the America he was inheriting. Roosevelt declared, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” For President Trump, it was “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones” and “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives.”
Of course, there is overwhelming evidence that the crime rate has plunged (especially in Trump’s home town of New York) over the past two decades. And economists will eagerly point out that changing technology (like robotics) have done far more than trade treaties like NAFTA to hollow out America’s 1950s industrial core.
But that’s not the view that the new president saw from the campaign trail and from his fortress of solitude atop Trump Tower. Much about Trump may reflect the cynicism of the eternal huckster, but his portrayal of a dying America calling out for rescue by a super hero seems sincere.
More important, this was probably the portion of the Inaugural Address that prompted Trump’s supporters to nod in enthusiastic agreement. Throughout the campaign, Trump played up the idea of America as Uncle Sucker. And he returned to that theme Friday as he declared, “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.”
Those are words that are likely to be parsed from the Baltic States to South Korea. Foreign policy specialists around the globe are probably writing briefing memos right now struggling to explain precisely what Trump meant when he said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones.”
Of course, there is a danger in constructing elaborate theories around a single speech from a new president — especially a president who decried “politicians who are all talk and no action.” Far wiser to follow the advice offered to reporters by Attorney General John Mitchell in 1969 at the beginning of the Nixon presidency: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
Historians may struggle to explain the violent lurch in the American presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. But Trump’s speech was a reminder that psychological wounds, as well as the economic ones, from the 2008 financial collapse have yet to fully heal.
Maybe that partly explains why America has elected back-to-back the two most unlikely presidents in our history.
Not only is Obama African-American, not only was he partly raised in Indonesia, but he also began running for president in 2007 after holding major office for just two years. Trump’s political arc actually makes Obama’s history almost seem conventional. Who, other than Trump staring into the shaving mirror, could have imagined that failed casinos and a reality TV show would offer a path to the Oval Office?
It is a cliché that every election offers a choice between change and the status quo. The American people — or, at least, the Electoral College — have embraced change with a vengeance. And Trump, as the 45th president, promises to bring with him “the hour of action.”
The hope on this historic Friday is that — after a career filled with disputed deals — President Donald J. Trump understood exactly what he was agreeing to when he pledged to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Washington is undergoing a major transformation, but Donald Trump’s inauguration brings more questions than answers.
To be sure, very little is known about what to expect from his much-anticipated inaugural address from the West Front of the Capitol. His top spokesman has promised a “personal” speech that is “unique” while laying out a vision for his presidency.
Moving trucks have been spotted outside the White House for several weeks as outgoing President Barack Obama and his family began transitioning out of the executive mansion. On Friday morning, trucks are expected to swoop in with Trump’s personal belongings. Already on Thursday, pictures of the Obamas that had hung on West Wing walls had been removed.
Trump traversed the country for months vowing to use his first day in office rolling back Obama-era policies and laws. But this week, his team announced his first day, and the two after that, will be reserved for “celebration.” The incoming president might envision a low-key first few days, but he has plenty to do.
For instance, he has only nominated 30 individuals to fill 660 government posts that require Senate confirmation. What’s more, he has recalled every single Obama ambassador, meaning those typical holdovers won’t be there to communicate with their counterparts should a crisis break out in their home countries.
In the judicial system, there are 114 vacancies to fill, including a Supreme Court justice, thanks largely to the glacial pace the Senate took in confirming nominees during the 114th Congress.
What’s more, sources say he will take office with a skeleton White House staff. But Sean Spicer, the incoming White House communications director and press secretary, assured reporters on Thursday that the Trump administration is ready to take over around noon.
“There’s a difference between enacting an agenda and making sure if there’s ... an attack or some kind of weather incident that occurs where each departments have to be called into action to support the American people, we’re ready to go,” he said. “Make no mistake ... we’re ready to go at 12:01 tomorrow.”
In his final press conference as president, Barack Obama warned that economic and other forces could further divide Americans, and sent messages anew to Donald Trump, particularly that he could re-enter the political arena if “our core values may be at stake.”
Less than 48 hours before he will cede all powers of the presidency to Trump, the 55-year-old Obama, with more salt than pepper atop his head, showed flashes of the optimistic candidate who toppled both Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the 2008 presidential campaign. But by the end of the session, his concerns about the next four years appear to show through.
“I believe in this country. I believe in the American people,” Obama said. “I believe that people are more good than bad.”
The president pointed to economic inequality as his biggest worry about the future of the country, saying “if we are not investing in making sure everybody plays a role in this economy, the economy will not grow as fast.” An even wider gap between haves and have nots would “also lead to further and further separation between us as Americans -- not just along racial lines.”
“I mean, there are a whole bunch of folks who voted for the president-elect because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised,” he said. “They feel as if they're being looked down on. They feel as if their kids aren't going to have the same opportunities as they did.”
In one of a handful of final thinly veiled pieces of advice for Trump he dropped Wednesday, Obama said that “you don't want to … have an America in which a very small sliver of people are doing really well, and everybody else is fighting for scraps.” Under those conditions, he warned, “racial divisions get magnified, because people think, well, the only way I'm going to get ahead is if I make sure somebody else gets less. … That's not a good recipe for our democracy.”
Obama, in a striking scene that showed he is attuned to Trump and his team threatening to kick the White House press corps out of the White House, began the nearly hour-long session, by endorsing efforts by the presidential press corps to remain in their workspace in the West Wing.
“I spent a lot of time … in my farewell address talking about the state of our democracy,” Obama said. “It goes without saying that essential to that is a free press. That is part of how this place, this country, this grand experiment of self-government has to work. It doesn't work if we don't have a well-informed citizenry.
“So America needs you and our democracy needs you,” Obama added. “We need you to establish a baseline of facts and evidence that we can use as a starting point for the kind of reasoned and informed debates that ultimately lead to progress.”
But it seemed the need to deliver that kind of pro-press freedom lecture, and the many uncertainties regarding whether Trump will leave in place any of his top accomplishments, has left the candidate who ran on hope with a less-optimistic view of the country’s future than he possessed eight years ago.
“At my core, I think we’re going to be OK,” Obama said in a less-than-optimistic assessment about where the country is headed. “We just have to fight for it. We have to work for it. And not take it for granted.”
Obama then offered telling final words for the reporters and photographers in the briefing room: “Good luck.”
Meantime, the outgoing president again signaled he intends to follow the tradition of most former U.S. presidents and remain on the sidelines of policy debates out of deference to the sitting chief executive. But he also had a message for Trump: Overstep on certain issues and I’ll return to politics.
On the normal “back-and-forth” in Washington on issues like tax cuts, the president said citizen Obama won’t weigh in. Then came the warning from a man who won two presidential elections and will depart office with approval ratings in the low-60s, compared to Trump’s 40-something numbers.
“But there's a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake,” a somber-faced Obama said. “I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise.”
Also on that list is any Trump-ordered program to, as the incoming POTUS has put it, “round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids, and send them someplace else, when they love this country. … I think would be something that would merit me speaking out.”
But would he feel so strongly that he might seek some kind of elected office? “It doesn't mean that I would get on the ballot,” he said.
Earnest: Obama ‘Reserves the Right’ to Speak Out
Meanwhile, one day after his own last go-round in the Brady briefing room, Obama’s top spokesman, Josh Earnest, was asked about a recent GQ article that explored what kind of relationship Obama would have with Trump.
“President Obama is hopeful that he can do the same thing President [George W.] Bush did,” Earnest told Roll Call during a Christian Science Monitor-sponsored breakfast. “The president also is reserving the right, if some basic values and norms are being violated, to speak out.”
Obama and his senior staff have talked throughout his final year about his appreciation for how Bush handled the transition period between their administration, as well as how the 43rd president has spent his post-White House life. For the most part, Bush has remained silent. Obama believes the country benefits most when former presidents give the sitting one the space to “execute their vision,” Earnest said.
Will GOP Blockade of Garland Leave ‘Scar’ on Senate?
Senate Republicans' refusal to give former Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing or floor vote will leave a permanent "scar" on the chamber, Earnest said, adding the blockade will undercut the GOP's arguments for Trump's eventual nominee.
On his penultimate day as Obama’s White House press secretary, Earnest said the Republican tactics had a negative impact on the country, its criminal justice system and “our democracy.” But for Republicans, he said, “it turned out to be good politics.”
Senate Democrats will have the option of launching a filibuster of whomever Trump nominates for the ninth high court seat. Even if they do – which inevitably would draw hails of hypocrisy from Republicans – Earnest launched a preemptive defense. Should that nominee reach the chamber floor, it would mark a major difference from how the GOP handled Garland because the Judiciary Committee would have held hearings and a vote, he said.
Quote of the Day
“Let me start off by saying that I was sorely tempted to wear a tan suit today for my last press conference. But Michelle, whose fashion sense is a little better than mine, tells me that's not appropriate in January.” –Obama, referring to a beige suit he wore to a briefing in August 2014, which created a social media uproar.
Several Senate Democrats pointed to the issue of Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Republican Rep. Tom Price’s investments at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, raising concerns that Price had invested in companies that would profit off of legislation he supported.
House Republicans on Friday passed a bare-bones fiscal 2017 budget resolution with few intraparty defections, as most GOP members saw the unbalanced and long-delayed spending plan as a necessary means to an end of repealing the 2010 health care law.
The nine Republicans who voted against the measure raised concerns about either the budget not balancing, a key priority for fiscal conservatives, or the aggressive timeline of repealing the Affordable Care Act, given that the GOP has yet to present a replacement plan. The final vote was 227-198.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise told reporters the defections were fewer than GOP vote counters had anticipated.
"This is a signal that we are very serious about what we've campaigned on for years," the Louisiana Republican said.
Among those voting "no" were four members of the moderate Tuesday Group -- Charlie Dent and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, John Katko of New York and Tom MacArthur of New Jersey -- and two members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, Justin Amash of Michigan and Raul Labrador of Idaho. The other three GOP "no" votes came from North Carolina Rep. Walter B. Jones, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie and California Rep. Tom McClintock, all of whom are conservatives but not members of the Freedom Caucus.
No Democrats voted for the resolution.
Massie said he voted against the budget resolution because of the estimated $9.7 trillion it would add to the national debt. He said his fiscal conservative colleagues who voted "yes" because they only saw the budget as a vehicle to get to Obamacare repeal will regret it.
"We got a category five hurricane coming when you have to reduce to practice, the differences between Donald Trump’s agenda and Paul Ryan’s agenda," he said. "I think there are going to be some very confusing votes in here.”
Amash, who in addition to being a member of the Freedom Caucus is chairman of the libertarian-minded Liberty Caucus, also opposed the resolution because of the spending levels, calling it "the worst budget we've had since I've been in Congress."
"A lot of people fell for what I call the 'We have to have dinner tonight in Paris, France, or else we'll starve routine,'" he said. "We don't have to vote for this terrible budget in order to move to the repeal of Obamacare. We can put together a good budget and also repeal Obamacare."
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who voted yes, said his group decided not to take a formal position on the budget resolution or whip its members to vote for or against it.
"If we really wanted to stop the resolution, we could've taken a much more strident position," the North Carolinian told reporters earlier this week.
On Thursday, Meadows said some of the group's concerns were allayed when leadership told them health care replacement legislation would move within a week of the upcoming budget reconciliation measure, which passage of the resolution sets in motion, to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Rep. Tom Cole said leadership formed messaging groups and held informational listening sessions in addition to the traditional whip team activity to ensure members were comfortable with the vote. But the ultimate motivating factor is politics, the Oklahoma Republican said.
“How do you go home after having campaigned against this thing since it passed in 2010, and say, ‘Well I voted against the first step of repeal because I wasn’t sure what the last step was’?" he said. "I don’t think that’s politically sustainable."
Dent, a Tuesday Group co-chair, has no problem going home to Pennsylvania and telling his constituents that.
"Nothing was repealed today," Dent said. "This sets up a process to move forward."
It was Dent's concerns about the process and how quickly it was moving that led him to vote against the budget resolution. He said he wants to be clear about what House Republicans' replacement plan is and where the Senate and White House are in terms of the policy.
"These [insurance] markets are already collapsing without us doing anything, but this type of action could accelerate the collapse," Dent said. "So we have to make sure we have a clear idea how we're going to land this plane."
For Katko, it was about keeping a promise to his constituents.
"I’ve always made it clear since the time I was running for office that I would never vote for repeal unless a replacement is ready," he said. "And so far, I haven’t seen the details of a replacement. And until that happens, I’m going to stay the course.”
Although Katko won re-election by 22 points in November, he represents a largely Democratic district that Hillary Clinton won in last year's presidential election.
MacArthur, a new co-chair of the Tuesday Group, agreed with Dent on the need to slow the process down and ensure there's a system in place that allows individuals and families to buy affordable health insurance. (The third Tuesday Group co-chair, Elise Stefanik of New York, voted "yes.")
The two-term Republican and former insurance executive said he's a "team player" and will work with his party on the repeal and replacement plan moving forward. But MacArthur added, "We're putting ourselves under some pressure — time pressure now."
Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.