Trump’s inauguration speech: tough and strikingly different

President Trump used the inclusive 'we' to talk about the path ahead for America. But his portrayal of the country's situation was dark, and critics say he missed an opportunity to reach out to all Americans.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Newly inaugurated President Trump pumps his fist at the conclusion of his inaugural address during ceremonies swearing him in as the 45th president of the United States on the West front of the US Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2017.

In his inaugural address, Donald Trump used the word “we” right off. In fact, he used the word nine times in his opening paragraphs, striking a note of inclusion that had been absent from his Republican National Convention acceptance speech, where an authoritarian “I” seemed the predominant pronoun.

But this did not herald a typical gauzy and uplifting inaugural oration. On a mild, drizzly day in the nation’s capital, President Trump depicted an America in decline, its factories rusted, its cities beset by crime, its public schools incompetent, its wealth flowing to other nations.

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” said Trump.

His supporters will surely be thrilled with this tough message. Trump promised a reversal of these trends, emphasizing the sort of issues – border controls, protectionist tariffs, a retreat from America’s long position of global leadership – that drew white working class voters and propelled the billionaire to the presidency in the first place.

But other groups, including college-educated voters and minorities, are likely to be less enthused. They may see it as an attack on established government policies, such as free trade and enforcement of voting rights, that are working for them. In that sense Trump did not use his first moments as US chief executive to try to bring the nation together after a bruising campaign, according to critics.

Trump “missed an opportunity to speak to the millions of Americans who did not vote for him,” says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon.

With just a few sentences Trump “could have said, ‘for all of you who voted for Secretary Clinton, election’s over! We’ve gotta figure out how to work together. I want us all to try to find some common ground.’ I think that would have been very welcome,” says Senator Wyden.

Trump was not exactly alone in this regard. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, speaking just prior to Trump’s swearing-in, gave a lengthy speech that subtly jabbed at the new chief executive. It was not well received by the pro-Trump inauguration crowd.

And in many ways Trump’s address was not particularly partisan. Or rather, it was not partisan along traditional lines. Trump did not promote low taxes, spending cuts, or reducing the size and intrusion of government – the great themes of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan. Instead, he described America’s problems with a populist framework. He talked about transferring power away from Washington, away from an establishment that has “protected itself, but not the citizens of the country.”

“While they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment, it belongs to you,” Trump said of this cabal.

Befitting a builder, Trump talked of constructing new roads and bridges and airports and tunnels all across America, getting people “off of welfare” and “rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.”

That sounds a lot like the big infrastructure program that he’s talked about, but which congressional GOP leaders haven’t exactly embraced. Recently Trump aides have hinted this effort is slipping down their list of priorities. Its revival in Trump’s inaugural hints that may not necessarily be the case.

Thus House Speaker Paul Ryan and majority leader Mitch McConnell may have reason to be a bit nervous in the wake of the Trump inaugural. It could indicate that President Trump plans to position himself between the GOP majority and the Democratic minority – “triangulating” to get as much of what he wants as possible, in Bill Clinton’s old phrase.

“I am unabashedly ideological,” tweeted conservative analyst Mary Katharine Ham following Trump’s speech. “The country is not. His message is populist & popular. His opponents dismiss that at their political peril.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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