As I readied for President Donald Trump’s inaugural address, thoughts of James K. Polk came to mind.
Not that America’s 45th and 11th chief executives are peas in a personality pod. Trump has long thrived on an oversized existence; Polk was a grind who didn’t like to socialize (“No president who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” he once remarked).
But this much they have in common:
Both are unlikely presidents: Polk, the original Democratic “dark horse”; Trump, the victor in a crowded Republican field. Each gentleman benefitted from mentorship – for Polk, fellow Tennessee Democrat Andrew Jackson; for Trump, the modern celebrity culture.
And neither minced words.
In March 1845, Polk’s inaugural was one part a lecture on the powers of the Constitution blended with multiple parts of his populist agenda (Texas statehood; dealing with tariffs and banking; continuing America’s inevitable march west).
Which brings us to what Trump had to offer the world Friday – what Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, had previewed as “a very personal and sincere statement about his country”.
Trump is the first businessman to go straight from the boardroom to the Oval Office – no elected offices in between. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that an inaugural address that clocked in at a little over 16 minutes was . . . well, all business.
Trump chose populism over partisanship; his colleagues-in-arms: “[t]he forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer”. He didn’t throw the political left or right under the right under the bus. Rather, it was the political class that took the hit.
This is important for Trump-watchers to understand and appreciate. For all the talk of the president-elect’s interest in the inaugural addresses of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, Trump resisted metaphors of a more perfect union or new frontiers.
Instead, he chose a more Reaganesque path.
“[Today we are not merely transferring power from one Administration to another, or from one party to another – but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.” Trump declared.
The parallel to Ronald Reagan: in his first inaugural, the “Great Communicator" portrayed himself not as the head of a national government, but as someone sent to Washington, by the nation, to make sense of things (“government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”).
Otherwise, there wasn’t much in the way of channeling ghosts of presidents past. Which makes perfect sense: from its inception, the Trump movement has put individual brand over political affiliation.
In the hours leading up to the inaugural, the question arose as to who was writing Trump’s address. Trump aides insisted: the president-elect himself.
Indeed, the speech sounded authentically Trump – in many regards, an extension of his stump speeches, his convention acceptance speech back in July and his Election Night victory remarks.
The new president painted a dour picture: “[F]or too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
Trump labeled it “American carnage” – a phrase most likely of his choosing, not a professional wordsmith’s.
The new president then lamented a course that’s “enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry” . . . [s]ubsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military” . . . “defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own” . . . “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay” . . . “made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon . . .”
How Trump plans to change this? Lots and lots of of promises:
“We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.”
“We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
“We will get our people off of welfare and back to work – rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.”
“We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and Hire American.”
“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
“We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God.”
“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action – constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.”
Reaction to the Trump inaugural?
Trump’s critics will say there wasn’t much in the way of olive branches. Trump didn’t reach out the truant congressional Democrats or the protestors who plan to march tomorrow.
They have a fair point: the speech was blunt and condemning, designed to vent a working-class frustration.
But remember: this is Donald Trump, not his predecessor. And with the change of power in American comes an end to the eight years of flowery speeches and mixed results. Trump himself made that point: “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”
Trump’s defenders, in turn, will say he did speak to all Americans: “[T]o all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”
In a 1,400-word speech, one noun stands out: “action.” For all he’s promised, what can and will President Trump deliver in the first 100 hours, 100 days and 100 weeks of his administration?
If progress isn’t as swift as he likes, will Trump attempt to stick around in Washington for the better part of 100 months, to see the cause to its end?
James K. Polk didn’t need 100 months. He accomplished what he set out to do in four years, and then walked away from the job. The first presidential mic drop, if you will.
Would that Trump will have the same option. That he gets what he wants done — then walks away.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.