American history academics spend a lot of time attempting to glean something of interest in Presidential Inaugural Addresses and generally fail. While there have been a small group of Inaugural Addresses that held substantive value when they were given or historical value now, generally speaking most are weak in rhetorical terms and platitudinous in content.
With that kind of track record I have seldom listened to an Inaugural Address since I knew what they were, but I must admit to some curiosity as to what our new President will say in his first attempt to speak to the country after he officially becomes our President. The “tweets” he has volleyed out since his election and his campaign speeches have not provided any organized insight into how he perceives not just his new job but more importantly his understanding of what the United States is. The only consistent themes have been “things are bad and getting worse”, “I will change things”, and “if you say something I don’t like or are not nice to me I will attack you”. It is unclear to me how you craft an Inaugural Address from them.
The one significant element of memorable American Presidential speech making that has been in little evidence in Mr. Trump’s pronouncements so far is hope. The majority of Presidential speeches that have managed to last past the then current news cycle have held out at least some measure of hope and the President giving the speech has conveyed that feeling of hope not just in his words but in the passion in which they are spoken. Ronald Reagan did this. Jack Kennedy did it as did Franklin Roosevelt. Lincoln used his words to become the embodiment of hope for the country.
Mouthing pious, political platitudes like I will change things or I will make America great again are not expressions of hope. Attacking and trying to demean people who say uncharitable things about you are not expressions of hope. Expressions of Presidential hope for the country need to be conveyed with words and emotions that move the American people beyond a list of problems into a willingness to believe that problems can be solved and that the country will be a better place for taking on the hard work needed to solve them. Even when the American people understand that many problems cannot be completely solved or solved to each person’s satisfaction we need to believe and be reassured in that belief by our political leaders that even limited success will make things better.
I think I may well listen to President Trump’s first Inaugural Address looking for any glimmers of hope he may send out. As we try to move down new paths to break us out of the political inertia we have settled into over the last few decades we can only succeed if we collectively believe that there is hope for success. So far, I have heard Mr. Trump use a rhetoric of change and fear. I have heard no hope. I will listen for the rhetoric of change and hope in his Inaugural Address.