For President Donald Trump, the transition from maverick political candidate to the nation's elected leader remains a work in progress. The 45th president's inaugural address Friday echoed his populist campaign speeches in tone and substance, an approach far different than those taken by predecessors from either political party. It surely resonated with his supporters, but it offered little reassurance to other Americans or to world leaders concerned about the direction of his administration.
Traditional inaugural addresses often recognize this nation's diversity as its strength, reinforce America's active role in an interconnected world and inspire new faith in our institutions with a soaring line or two. They are generally optimistic and aimed at building broad support inside and outside Washington for the new president's vision. That was not this speech.
Trump went beyond the routine rhetoric about giving citizens a greater voice in their government. He aggressively attacked Washington by declaring "politicians prospered" while their constituents suffered, sounding as though he had just completed a hostile takeover of the capital. That is not going to help a president who has not held public office build alliances in Congress, even among fellow Republicans.
The message to world leaders, particularly America's allies, was more disturbing. Trump complained that the United States has subsidized other countries economically and protected them militarily without receiving any benefit, which is at odds with reality. His isolationist rhetoric ("From this moment on, it's going to be America first") remains the wrong approach for the United States and for allies in Europe and elsewhere.
Most disappointing is that Trump continues to paint a grim portrait of America as a failing nation dominated by rusting factories, terrible schools and crime-ridden neighborhoods filled with gangs and drugs. "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,'' he declared. American carnage? The violent crime rate has dropped, job growth has been steady and the Dow has more than doubled over the last eight years. The economic recovery has not reached everyone, and there are challenges in areas ranging from public education to law enforcement in some portions of the country. But the new president is taking over a nation in far better shape than he acknowledges.
Trump thanked former President Barack Obama for a smooth transition, and he delivered some nice lines at the end of his short speech about dreaming big and a "new national pride.'' Later, he graciously introduced Bill and Hillary Clinton at a luncheon at the Capitol and led a standing ovation for them. But the inaugural address was a missed opportunity for Trump to reach beyond his core supporters and extend an open hand to Americans seeking reassurance about his leadership. He seems to have forgotten he enters office with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in memory and lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes.
The peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next has been completed, but America remains a sharply divided nation. Trump will have to do more than rehash campaign speeches to unite it.