It’s often been said that Americans are the most optimistic people on Earth.
Perhaps at no time does this become more evident than in the quadrennial inaugural ceremony that will take place on Capitol Hill at noon Friday, when Donald Trump will be sworn in as America’s 45th president.
Inauguration Day is a turning point in American political life. The winner of the recent election offers a healing, and occasionally inspiring, message. Campaign divisions are forgotten – for the moment, anyway – and public opinion, once starkly split, coalesces largely behind the president-elect in a way that often belies the bitterness of the recent race.
More than three-quarters of the public was behind Barack Obama when he took the oath of office in 2009. Nearly two-thirds supported George W. Bush in 2001. Yes, their popularity soon plummeted. But Trump doesn’t even get to begin his new job with that kind of boost.
When he stands before Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and places his hand on the Bible, surrounded by family, the soon-to-be-departed President Obama, a bevy of political allies and enemies – including his defeated opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton – the latest polls find that just 40 percent of the public views him favorably.
“Sad,” as Trump often says in his tweets.
But we’ve been through this before, haven’t we? The brash political novice was never supposed to win, right? That was not supposed to be him up on the podium on Jan. 20. Polls and pundits had Clinton as the victor on Election Day.
Yet there he will stand in a few hours, at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, inheritor of a legacy that reaches back to the nation’s earliest, near-mythical moments. His name, a bejeweled brand linked to luxury hotels, verdant golf courses and other properties, as well as shirts, ties and reality TV, will now forever be associated with names such as Adams, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
His fervent supporters, who will fill the crowds gathered on the National Mall, can take a large measure of satisfaction in knowing that their political cri de coeur resonated, that Trump alone – not Clinton, nor any of his Republican primary opponents – heard their frustration with as keen an ear. No others understood and echoed their anger and resentments as well.
Indeed, Trump stoked it. He upended the status quo and proved the experts wrong. Now the pressure will be on him to make good on his promises, to replace Obamacare with something better and to bring back jobs to old manufacturing communities.
But Trump has other pressures, too. Questions and investigations are hovering over his White House before he has even walked in the door. His ties to Russia, his business dealings and the qualifications of his Cabinet nominees are all under scrutiny.
So who will we see delivering what’s expected to be a 20-minute speech marking the beginning of a new political era? It will be a singular moment, of hope and optimism for many, of fear and uncertainty for others.
Will he be the campaigner in chief, the Trump who continued to pick fights and generally remain in attack mode long after the vote was settled? Or will there be a kinder, gentler Trump, the one whose allies say exists behind the tirades and tweets?
Inauguration Day is a carefully choreographed display of tradition and political civility, notions that Trump seemed to enjoy exploding during his campaign and that he has generally eschewed during the transition.
But he will follow the ritual Friday: breakfast at Blair House, the presidential guesthouse across the street from the White House; a private prayer service; coffee with the outgoing president and first lady; the swearing-in ceremony; lunch with friends and officials in the Capitol Rotunda; the inaugural parade; and appearances at the three inaugural balls.
“It’s the ultimate new beginning,” said Richard Baker, who served as Senate historian for more than three decades and has seen his share of presidential inaugurals. “This is the day for optimism. We can, indeed, hope for the best.”