Inaugural addresses are signposts pointing in the direction the new President wishes to go. The best addresses typically attempt to do several things at once.
First, after often bitter election campaigns, the new President aims to bring people together in conciliation. Thus, Thomas Jefferson, whose election against incumbent President John Adams was not settled until February [for 150 years’ inaugurations were held on March 4], understood this lesson well. Even though Adams left town at 6 a.m., determined not to attend the inauguration, Jefferson said to his divided audience, “we are all republicans, we are all federalists,” offering an olive branch to his defeated foe and party.
Second, the best addresses evoke positive images of American history. Thus, Abraham Lincoln concluded his First Inaugural evoking “the mystic chords of memory,” and calling forth “the better angels of our nature.” In his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln concluded with an ethical imperative, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Donald Trump’s inaugural address comes across as more combative than conciliatory. His evoking of the phrase “America first,” recalls an organization before World War II that argued against America getting into another European war – and thus assuming a leadership position in the world.
His address repeated themes that have been heard for the past year and a half. He offered nothing in his inaugural address to the supporters of Hillary Clinton, who, after all, won the popular vote by a wide margin. How many across America were hoping against hope to hear a message more magnanimous in spirit and content.
Both Jefferson and Lincoln lived into the spirit of their addresses in their presidencies. If inaugural addresses are signposts pointing forward, America, and the world, is waiting to see what President Trump with not say but do.