By Denise Dunbar
Eight years ago I wrote a column entitled “Obama takes the reins” (January 22, 2009) that assessed the new president’s inaugural speech. What follows is a similar sizing up of President Donald Trump’s words at Friday’s inauguration.
But first, a few thoughts on that speech from 2009: President Barack Obama’s inaugural words contained some of the rhetorical flourish that we had come to expect from him, but it was also a somber speech. In quoting scripture, he said, “The time has come to set aside childish things.”
He spoke of the need for self-sacrifice and said he was ushering in “a new era of responsibility.” It was a very different message from what he had delivered on the campaign trail and wasn’t particularly predictive of the things he would emphasize while governing.
Trump’s speech on Friday, by contrast, had little in the way of flourish. Yes, he also quoted scripture, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity,” a particularly important message right now.
The most poetic parts of the speech came toward the end. In emphasizing that his goals are for everyone who feels left out of America’s prosperity, he said, “And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.”
The rest of the short, to-the-point speech was pure populism and a call to nationalism. Trump said that the federal government has for too long worked for those in power and not for the people it’s supposed to serve.
And he bluntly stated that his administration is going to put our country first, implying future cutbacks in foreign military and humanitarian aid in order to fund domestic spending on infrastructure and defense.
Not surprisingly, reactions to the speech differed widely. I’ve heard from friends and relatives, mostly in the heartland, who loved it. To them, Trump’s inaugural words were an affirmation of the promises he made on the campaign trail and an indication that he intends to govern as he said he would.
Most Democrats I’ve spoken to didn’t watch the speech. Those who did generally said it reaffirmed their fears about a Trump administration. And establishment Republicans seem to be taking a “wait and see” approach, happy to control Congress while remaining wary of a man who was not their choice to be the GOP standard bearer.
And yet, I keep coming back to the passage about the child from inner city Detroit and the one from the Great Plains, because I think that holds a key to what Trump is saying that both sides seem to be missing.
Many hoped that President Obama would be a “post-partisan” president, yet it was Trump who delivered the most non- partisan inaugural I’ve ever heard. He didn’t once identify as a Republican.
He also didn’t touch on regular Republican themes like freedom, democracy and exceptionalism, which left many in his own party disappointed. In attacking Washington elites who he said work for themselves and not the American people, he was condemning his own party as much as Democrats.
I think this approach bears the fingerprints of Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who has said his goal is to lift Trump’s party into long-term dominance by bringing jobs and revitalization to inner cities as well as the heartland. That’s breathtakingly ambitious. And yet, Trump has repeatedly said he seeks big change.
In 2009, I wrote that while Obama had been compared to President Abraham Lincoln because of his home state and rhetorical ability, his inaugural speech echoed George Washington in his call for “unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”
The president Trump most brings to mind is Andrew Jackson, who also came to town as an outsider, a fighter and a populist. Jackson was the first president who was not a Virginia planter or a member of the Adams family. He had a mercurial, unpredictable temperament and was thin-skinned, which led him to fight several duels.
The parallels are not identical, because Jackson was also a politician and military hero — and the United States of nearly 200 years ago is almost unrecognizable today. But it’s a good guess that we are in for a brawling, volatile and possibly transformative four or eight years. Only time will tell.
The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.