When President-elect Donald Trump swears into office Friday, he will deliver the 58th inaugural address and become the 45th president. Just as the position carries a long history, so does the inaugural address. For those who study these things, Trump’s speech is a bit of question mark as to whether it will stick with historical trends.
“To some extent, all bets are off,” said Robert Rowland, a professor of communications at the University who specializes in political rhetoric, especially inaugural addresses.
David Guth, a journalism professor who has studied political campaigns, agreed, saying, “Donald Trump has not been a traditional presidential candidate in any way, shape or form.”
The inaugural address has many expectations and norms assigned to it, the professors say, which have largely been maintained throughout history. Most importantly, though, are the traditional goals of the speech.
The biggest goal is to reunite the country after the election, Guth said. Inaugural addresses are also often used to relate the incoming administration and the president’s understanding of the American experience.
Rowland put it even more simply: “It gives a chance for a president to establish their political principles.”
Most presidents use their speeches to do several things, like address current issues, lay out their political philosophies, show strength and demonstrate their leadership qualities, Rowland said.
Audience is another important consideration, Rowland said. Inaugural addresses are aimed at the American people as a whole, allies and even enemies of the country, as opposed to campaign speeches which target the candidate’s party.
For this reason, as well as others, Guth said the inaugural address is “the most important part of a president’s legacy.”
Guth said the inaugural address sets the tone for the incoming president’s administration and entire presidency. If Trump continues the divisive tone he had in the campaign, Guth suspects it will lead to a difficult presidency.
Neither professor said they had much confidence that Trump will go for a more traditional inaugural address. Guth said the only time that Donald Trump has ever been close to traditional is when he’s used a teleprompter, but that he’s not very good at it, nor does he like to use one.
News outlets like CNN have reported that Trump is writing most of his own speech, and that it will be short. It’s not clear whether or not he will be using a teleprompter.
Rowland said he believes Trump has probably been advised to stick with the expectations of the inaugural address. However, Trump’s behavior since the election has not shown a move toward more traditional actions or rhetoric, Rowland said.
“President-elect Trump has not followed any of the norms of campaign discourse, and certainly not the norms of what you would expect after the election, except for his statement the morning after the election, where he talked about reuniting the people,” Rowland said. “But, since then, he has violated all of the norms that we expect of a president-elect. So I think it’s difficult to predict what he is going to do.”
— Edited by Ashley Hocking