I’ve spent the past few days reading through every inauguration speech from an incoming president, going back to George Washington in 1789. And I noticed that presidents’ inaugural addresses almost always follow the same anatomy.
There’s the beginning, where they talk about the importance of unifying the country — often by talking about what it means to be America or the peaceful transfer of power. Sometimes they also try to recast a common narrative of what American has been through.
Almost always, this is a lead-up to the main event: the portion of the speech about the big problem that we, as a country, face.
This was true of Washington and true of Barack Obama. Both of their speeches built up to the biggest problem they saw in the nation (although the nature of the challenge was quite different). As I read through the speeches, I categorized this “big problem” each president outlines, largely to see how it’s changed over time and what to expect from President-elect Donald Trump.
It’s telling how much the early presidents were concerned about the democratic process and the separation of powers. John Adams talked about protecting the “purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections.” And William Henry Harrison was worried about an executive branch with too much power, so he vowed only to serve one term.
More recently, presidents have cast domestic and economic issues as the primary challenge facing the nation, and given Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it seems likely he’ll follow suit.
There’s this one narrative that presidents love to tell
But the more telling part is almost always the way the president tries to tell a certain narrative about where we’ve been and how we got here. It’s often a unifying narrative — one that’s inclusive of most Americans’ experience of recent times. It’s used as a way to justify the big problem they see with the country and the vision they have to fix it.
This is perhaps the most interesting part to watch for in Trump’s speech. He is exceedingly unpopular for a president who has yet to take office, and his narrative thus far has been about how America has declined from its heyday. It’s unlikely he will move away from that narrative, so it’s hard to see the beginning of his speech going any other way. But since this narrative is so broad, where he goes from there — whether it’s about health care, trade, or immigration — is anyone’s guess.