No one expected Donald Trump's inaugural address to join John F. Kennedy's in the annals of presidential oratory. His own advisors telegraphed that the speech would be brief and "workmanlike." But they also signaled that the new president would outline a vision for the country.
That's what we were hoping to hear after Trump was sworn in as president, along with some words of reassurance for Americans who are apprehensive about his ascension to the Oval Office because of his divisive and ugly campaign rhetoric.
What the nation got instead was a recycled campaign speech. President Trump, like candidate Trump, offered absurd oversimplifications ("The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world") and made promises that will be impossible to keep (the "carnage" in American cities caused by gangs and drugs "stops right here and stops right now").
The speech was a virtual Greatest Hits of Trump campaign clichés, from "America First" to "America will start winning again, winning like never before" to, of course, the climactic closing in which the president pledged (you guessed it) to "Make America great again."
It would be unreasonable to expect Trump to abandon those themes, which, after all, served him well in the race for the White House. But his first speech as president offered him the opportunity to acknowledge, as his advisors and Cabinet appointees recognize, that governing requires more than slinging slogans and that no president can magically end crime or eradicate terrorism. Instead, he stayed defiantly in crass campaign mode.
A larger problem with the speech was Trump's failure to reach out in more than a perfunctory way to the millions of Americans who not only didn't support him but also were offended and even alarmed by his comments about immigrants and racial minorities — not to mention women, who are expected to descend in droves on the capital Saturday for a protest march. He seemed to be directing his remarks almost exclusively to the "forgotten men and women" he had cultivated on the campaign trail, the ones eager to roll back the clock to a time before globalization and automation wiped out manufacturing jobs and demographic changes altered once-homogeneous communities.
He did speak of healing divisions, but in the context of creating a "new national pride" that would subordinate rather than respect differences. He cited "that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag." What Trump fails to see in this vision of inclusive patriotism is that not all Americans share the glorious freedoms he celebrates, at least not to the same extent.
Missing in the speech was any recognition that he has a responsibility, especially given his divisive campaign, to bring Americans together. In his victory statement on election night, Trump showed an awareness of the importance of such outreach. On that occasion, he said: "Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division" and pledged that "I will be president for all of Americans." Friday's speech would have benefited from such a gesture.
If Trump governs effectively — a big if, based on all that we've seen of him so far — it will matter little that he delivered a hackneyed and unmemorable inaugural address. Still, this speech offered the new president a unique opportunity to reintroduce himself to the American people. He squandered it.
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