As Donald Trump steps up to take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address on Friday January 20th, he will do so as the least popular incoming president since polling began. A Quinnippiac poll on Jan 10th showed him with an approval rating of 37 percent.
A 538.com average of five national polls found that 41 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s transitional performance while 52 percent disapprove. In his usual intemperate style, Trump has condemned the polls on his popularity as “rigged”. But even if he resists acknowledging it publicly, he will know that he is not well liked by most Americans and actively hated by many.
Since presidential approval ratings can be a useful tool in trying to move forward a policy agenda in office, and since Trump’s frequent campaign references to his polls suggest he is also intrinsically interested in his popularity, the task for his inaugural would seem obvious: win some people over.
Advance trails have suggested that this mission has been accepted by the president-elect and his team. The suggestion is that his address will be relatively short, presumably to minimise the scope for mishap or digression, and will focus on “national unity”.
Though each president brings something of themselves and their agenda to their inaugural, such addresses have some fairly predictable elements: a quotation or two from the founders or other national heroes; references to the constitution and to the American Republic as a successful ongoing experiment in liberty and the separation of powers; highlighting some present national purpose that must animate the years to come.
Trump faces three challenges. Firstly, he lost the popular vote to be president, securing his victory only because of the rules of the Electoral College. This makes it trickier than usual to equate his elevation with the democratic will of the people.
Secondly, the election campaign was extraordinarily divisive, and featured multiple occasions when Trump spoke in the most inflammatory, offensive terms imaginable about minorities, women, and immigrants. The same day as his inauguration, huge gatherings of opposition are planned for Washington, DC, and in other cities.
Thirdly, due to Trump’s constant verbal aggression and lack of regard for the norms of political restraint, not to mention his confrontational approach to negative coverage in the press, many opponents see Trump not just as a disliked new president, but as an authoritarian threat to the Republic.
Trump can do nothing about the first problem; the nature of his victory is what it is. As for his divisive campaign, the wounds caused are so deep that it will take far more than a few warm words about unity to make amends even if he is inclined to offer them. However, a statement signalling that the president has respect for citizens beyond his own constituency would represent a minimally acceptable start. And lastly, regarding Trump’s constant verbal aggression and lack of regard for the norms of political restraint, the occasion of his inaugural might offer a small early test of critical importance to the years ahead: is this president capable of exercising discipline and self-restraint, even when the incentive to do so could not be greater?