History Provides Trump a Guide for His Inaugural Address

Changes in party rule show how presidents both praise and criticize

An aide to President-elect Donald Trump, seen here at a news conference on Jan. 11 at Trump Tower in New York City, says his inaugural address will be “unique to him.” (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Newly sworn-in American presidents taking over for a predecessor of another political party have employed a number of rhetorical approaches from which Donald Trump could choose to borrow on Friday. Trump has met with historians and watched past inaugural addresses, but a top aide said his first speech as president will be “unique to him.”

Given the unprecedented tone of both his campaigning style and brash tenor during the transition period, anything is possible when the new president steps to the podium bearing the seal of the president around noon Friday. It is a safe bet some or most of Trump’s address will sound much different than those delivered in the past. 

“I want to hear a positive message. I want to hear a message like other presidents have given, which uplifts and brings the country together. I think that’s what all Americans want to hear,” House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland told Roll Call. “But my expectations are not very high.”

Some newly minted presidents were stunningly direct, all called for unity among their countrymen, and most described both the nation’s place in history and the direction in which he intended to steer it. A review of party-flipping addresses also showed presidents honoring their predecessors and the country’s founders, incorporating their faith traditions, and being generally optimistic about the prospects for the United States, even while acknowledging its blemishes.

[(VIDEO) White House Watch: What to Watch for in Trump’s Inaugural Address]

Most recent speeches have topped out at around 20 minutes, despite their brevity — by presidential address standards, at least — they offer the incoming 45th president and his staff a canon of advice on how to craft perhaps the most anticipated inaugural address in decades — and maybe in American history.

But a scorched-earth campaign with a dismal assessment of the country’s health, admitted disdain for political norms, and a transition period dominated by fiery social media posts, unnecessarily public and nasty feuds with intelligence officials and a civil rights icon suggest Trump could easily ignore the words of presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Channeling Lincoln

Lincoln, moments after being sworn in as the 16th president, wasted virtually no time in addressing simmering tensions between the North and South. “I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement,” Lincoln said in the second paragraph of his first address. And by the fourth, he stated “no purpose” to “interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.”

George W. Bush did not attempt to simply ignore a general election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. But in the opening moments of his 2001 speech, Bush thanked “Vice President Gore for a contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” He then turned and acknowledged his vanquished foe as the crowd applauded.

Adopting the Lincoln-Bush approach of immediately addressing the day’s most contentious matter in an attempt at unifying the country would be tricky for Trump, however. That’s because his feuds, controversial statements and bombastic actions are so numerous that focusing on just one early in the address would likely not be enough to strike a unifying tone.

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The president-elect has spent most of his public communication efforts taking on media outlets, large corporations, actresses, political rivals and others via Twitter or hand-picked press interviews. His team has not disclosed much about his first address to the American people as their president.

Calls for statesmanship

There have been ample calls from Democrats — and even from Trump’s own party — for the president-elect to act more presidential, Washington shorthand for statesmanlike.

“We’ve got to bring our country back together and the message should be one of unity,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, told MSNBC on Tuesday. “The president sets the tone and beats the right drum and that’s what I think he has to do. And I am reasonably optimistic he will do so.”

Other Republicans, however, aren’t so sure.

Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, wants to hear about “his vision for the country,” as well as “specific proposals he has mentioned.” But the veteran lawmaker acknowledged that “it remains to be seen” whether the 45th president can resist falling into his unique campaigning style.

“I hope that he will realize the setting and the mood,” Rogers told Roll Call.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who met with Trump privately during the transition period, scoffed at the notion of a divisive speech. “I see Donald Trump as someone who really wants everyone to have an opportunity for a better life,” she said in a brief interview, adding that the president-elect has wide support among Americans “who feel like they’re falling behind.”

One Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be named said she is concerned that Trump will repeat past addresses in which he “went after his enemies,” adding that “he’s been one surprise after another.”

Trump used a dismal assessment of the country to fuel his populist campaign, expressing disgust for what he calls America’s “Third World” infrastructure, “burning” and “crime-infested” inner cities, and its ill-advised foreign interventionism.

The Clinton model

Clinton’s first inaugural address offers, if he is indeed eager to appear more presidential, examples of how to criticize the preceding chief executive without doing so as brashly as Trump typically does.

The young Democratic president thanked his GOP predecessor George H.W. Bush in 1993 for “his half-century of service to America,” then joined the crowd in lengthy and warm applause. But the 42nd president, without naming Bush, made clear he believed the country had suffered over the previous four years.

“This new world has already enriched the lives of millions of Americans who are able to compete and win in it,” Clinton said. “But when most people are working harder for less; when others cannot work at all; when the cost of health care devastates families and threatens to bankrupt our enterprises, great and small; when the fear of crime robs law-abiding citizens of their freedom; and when millions of poor children cannot even imagine the lives we are calling them to lead, we have not made change our friend.”

[Contrast Shows With Trump in Obama’s Farewell Address]

On Jan. 13, Trump’s incoming press secretary and communications director, Sean Spicer, told reporters the president-elect wants to use his speech to “unite the country” and “restore the pride in our nation.” One major theme of the address, Spicer added, will be Trump’s pledge of “putting more Americans back to work.”

“You continue to hear those themes echo [in the president-elect’s public statements] and I’d think you’re going to hear a lot of that in the inaugural address,” Spicer said. “It will be very visionary and lay out where he wants to take the country in the world, that he sees every American playing in making the country better.”

If the new president plans to try to unify the country with some kind of collective call to action, he could find a blueprint in the words of Kennedy, who was taking over for Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican.

“The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world,” Kennedy said in 1961. “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.