November 21, 2018
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What Trump can learn from past presidents’ inaugural addresses

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

In a cherished civic tradition dating back to George Washington, President-elect Donald Trump will deliver his inaugural address on Jan. 20. The inaugural presents him an opportunity to reach beyond the minority who elected him to unite the country behind his priorities and leadership.

Public opinion provides a president with power. As presidential advisor, Richard Neustadt observed that “the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.” The inaugural address will be Trump’s initial test in the presidential role of public persuader. President Trump’s goal should be to come out of the inaugural with more adherents and lay to rest some of the apprehension about his election.

Trump said he is preparing by reading the inaugural addresses of past presidents, and he is particularly attracted to Ronald Reagan’s style and John F. Kennedy’s national ambitions. He would also profit from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln’s attempts to unify the country after their divisive elections and from Washington’s display of prudence, patriotism and humility to inspire public trust in his leadership.

In the bitterly fought 1800 presidential election, the Electoral College deadlocked, throwing the election into the House of Representatives that on the 36th ballot elected Jefferson as the first president without affiliation with the Federalist Party. To allay concerns about his commitment to the newly formed United States, Jefferson sought to unify the country by upholding the rights of the minority and urging the country to “ unite with one heart and mind.” Jefferson proclaimed: “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” He asked a divided country to “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”

Lincoln was elected president with less than 40 percent of the popular vote after he failed to carry a single southern state. By the time he assumed office, southern states had seceded but Lincoln defined the situation as southern apprehension, arguing that states lacked the power to withdraw from the union. In an effort to unify the country, Lincoln assured his southern countrymen he would uphold the Fugitive Slave Law and not oppose a constitutional amendment to preserve slavery in perpetuity in the southern states, putting unity above his belief in slavery’s evil.

Trump’s affinity for Reagan’s inaugural address comes as no surprise. His fellow showman pledged to boost employment, lower taxes and shrink the size of government by reducing regulations that hamper ambitious entrepreneurs like Trump.

Kennedy’s inaugural address, on the other hand, called for self-sacrifice, support for the United Nations, and alliances with countries around the world — hardly a Trump agenda. But Kennedy’s electrifying speech hearkens back to a confident country with a president willing to take on big challenges — to “explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease.”

Kennedy boldly asserted we have the “power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” He fearlessly proclaimed our willingness to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe” in the cause of liberty. Kennedy articulated a vision for a great country, even knowing his lofty goals could not be completed in his administration. Nonetheless, he asked the country to begin.

Trump might transpose his divisive campaign rhetoric into an inspiring populist vision attractive to many Americans — a society committed to ending endless wars, addressing the root causes of mass migration, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, fixing poor schools and crime-ridden neighborhoods, lowering taxes on the middle class, spurring economic growth, preparing a nation for 21st-century jobs without the burden of crushing student debt, and offering a safety net for those displaced by automation and globalization. And Trump’s post-election statements indicating possible softening in his positions on deportation and climate change inches him closer to the mainstream.

His inaugural address also might bolster his character, not by assertion but by displaying a sense of humility, compassion and civic obligation. Jefferson admitted the “task is above my talents,” and Washington spoke openly of his love of country and his deficiencies, including “ inheriting inferior endowments.” Washington also initiated a tradition of expressing gratitude to God and asking for his blessings upon the country — language that serves to humble the powerful.

These lessons from history may be viewed with cynicism as hoping for a president we want rather than one we elected. And skepticism is surely justified until actions follow words. But keep in mind that Jefferson and Lincoln were as distrusted as Trump in large swaths of the country.

As Trump reads the inaugural addresses of past presidents, he may pause to ponder the awesome obligations of the office, the importance of broadening his constituency and the policies that will secure his place in this country’s history.

Joseph W. McDonnell is a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service in Portland.

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