Donald Trump’s inaugural address was all the things commentators said it was—pugnacious, nationalistic, a repudiation of the Obama years and a warning to the power brokers of both parties. As I listened, though, I thought I heard echoes of another address. Only when I read the speech afterward did I realize: Trump’s speech bore an astonishing resemblance to Barack Obama’s first inaugural address, in 2009.
Trump sharply criticized Washington’s power elite—many of whom sat nearby. “Today,” he said near the outset, “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” He went on to denounce a “small group in our nation’s capital,” a group he further narrowed to “politicians” of an “establishment.” “Their victories,” Trump said, “have not been your victories.”
Obama did much the same in 2009. Back then, the new president called for “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
Once this cynical establishment was out of the way, however, both men imagined a unified America accomplishing momentous things. “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together,” Obama said. “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” And he rejected the counsel of those “who question the scale of our ambitions.” “All this we can do,” he said. “All this we will do.”
Trump articulated the power of national solidarity even more boldly—“we share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny”—and envisioned its expression in a series of government projects that differed only marginally from Obama’s: “We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.” Trump, too, warned against smallness of ambition: “Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. . . . We will not fail.”
For both Obama and Trump, however, all these things lay in the future. In the present, the United States gropes from one crisis to the next, the victim of its own lethargy and unwisdom. As he did in his convention speech last summer, Trump drew an unsparingly bleak picture of America. He spoke of “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”; of “crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
Obama envisioned a similarly dismal America in 2009. He spoke of an economy weakened by the greed and irresponsibility of some, and of a “collective failure to make hard choices.”
There’s one crucial difference between Obama’s inaugural address and Trump’s, however, and although it may have its roots in ideology or worldview, it has mainly to do with attitude.
In his first inaugural address, Obama spoke of the United States and its history and people in ways that sounded detached, academic, almost theoretical; and that professorial detachment ran through his public addresses for the next eight years. His 2009 speech exhibited a grasp and appreciation of U.S. history—our ancestors, he said, “toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth. . . . They fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.” But as for the actual Americans listening to him in the present, you didn’t get the impression that he liked them very much.
Trump, by stark contrast, simply tells Americans he loves them. He speaks far more often in the second person than Obama, and his simple diction and clipped sentences sound heartfelt compared with Obama’s writerly abstractions. “You will never be ignored again,” Trump told Americans at the end of his address. “Your voice, your hopes and your dreams will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”
Sophisticated liberal urbanites resist this kind of direct emotional expressiveness. That’s fair enough—I don’t care for it myself. But if they want to beat Donald Trump, they’d better not underestimate its power.
The first 96 hours of President Donald Trump’s tenure have been filled with claims, counter-claims, accusations of bias, outright falsehoods and lots of other things that make people hate politics, politicians and everything about Washington.
It’s enough even for me—a political junkie through and through—to wonder what we are even doing out here. It all feels terrible, unwatchable, nauseating.
But not all of politics—or all politicians—operates like this. There are lots of politicians doing it—by and large—right, working to represent their constituents and views with a modicum of humility and humor, not to mention a commitment to finding solutions, not just calling out problems.
It does the heart good to read about these folks. So here are a few politicians who should make you believe, again, in public service—even in these tempestuous times.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.: Murray is, simply put, the most underrated Senator. And it’s not close. She has successfully led the organization aimed at increasing the number of Democratic senators. She has played a central policy role within the chamber. And, again and again, she demonstrates a willingness and an ability to get things done even amid the worsening partisan roar. Murray, along with Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.—he wasn’t speaker yet—crafted the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, which ended the financial brinksmanship of Congress. It also served as a sign that, yes, bipartisan compromise was possible if both sides were willing.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C.: Graham is the rare Republican politician who has successfully navigated the rise of the tea party over the past decade. Despite claims from tea party types that they would take him down for his alleged moderation, Graham has coasted to re-election. He continues to unapologetically represent the hawkish wing of the Republican Party and is one of the biggest skeptics about the motives of Russia and Vladimir Putin. Graham does all of this with a self-deprecating nature and a terrific sense of humor.
Gov. Charlie Baker, R-Mass.: Massachusetts is one of the most Democratic states in the country. And yet Baker, a Republican, is one of the most popular governors in the country. How? Baker has cast himself as a relentlessly positive force for change, a businessman committed not to blowing up the government but simply to making it work better. He has also shown—by necessity—a willingness to work with the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature in the Bay State.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.: I talked to lots of politicians in 2016 about the state of politics and where we need to go from here. None impressed me more than Hickenlooper. He has had his ups and downs as governor of Colorado but was in the final three to be Hillary Clinton’s vice president. Hickenlooper is refreshingly open and transparent—about his successes and failures—and brings a much-needed small-businessman’s perspective (he founded a brewery before running for office) to the Democratic Party. They should be listening to him more.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.: Lots of political types remember him only for his two failed presidential candidacies, his trademark red and black flannel shirts and the exclamation point that was his campaign slogan (Lamar!). But since being elected to the Senate in 2002, Alexander has distinguished himself as someone committed to making actual policy and willing (and able) to fight the ideologues in his party. Of late, Alexander has been outspoken in favor of the GOP having a replacement plan in place before moving ahead with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del.: Coons wasn’t even supposed to be in the Senate. He ran in 2010 as a sacrificial lamb against uber-popular Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle. But then Castle lost the GOP primary to Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell, and suddenly Coons was a member of the Senate. Since then, Coons has shown he’s no fluke. He has emerged as a thoughtful senator, one governed more by his beliefs than by the power of party and partisanship.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.: Kinzinger, like many of his fellow House Republicans, was first elected in the national wave year of 2010. In the intervening years, he has shown that he’s among the best of that group. Kinzinger beat longtime Republican Rep. Don Manzullo in a redistricting-forced race in 2012 and then, two years later, defeated an ideological primary challenge funded by the conservative Club for Growth. Kinzinger has also been willing to openly criticize Trump when he feels it necessary. He blasted Trump for a tweet praising Julian Assange and has been a vocal skeptic of Trump’s openness to a new relationship with Russia.
The allegations by Idaho state Representative Heather Scott that female legislators get ahead at the Statehouse by exchange of sexual favors has continued to go viral. Last week, the speed may have slowed with her apology to the House.
Scott in any event was wrong: Her contention has never been the path to advancement for female legislators in Idaho, or I suspect many other legislatures. I’ve never heard evidence of a specific Idaho case or even a rumor of one. Affairs between legislators? That’s nothing new (though the headlines about it are a new wrinkle). Back in the 70s the reporter corps would occasionally snicker at lawmaker couples who thought they were undiscovered but weren’t. But those activities usually have held legislators back more than advanced them.
There’s also been talk that the pulling of committee assignments from Scott had to do with her ideology.
Nonsense. Ideology hasn’t been a blocking point for legislators past, or present.
Asked about moving on up, Representative Stephen Hartgen said, “I’ve been here almost 10 years. People get ahead here on the basis of merit, in my humble opinion. I’ve never seen anything that would cause me to question that premise.”
Well … Sometimes legislators do become influential on specific subjects (say, the budget, or health care, or water law) when they have a strong expertise in it. But influence at the legislature usually comes down to other things. In this cynical era, when the darkest possible explanation often is the most easily believed, a quick look at what does yield Idaho legislative influence seems in order.
Seniority, probably foremost. Most committee chairs (which generally are important posts) usually go to the senior member of the majority party who doesn’t already have another chairmanship or leadership post, or (sometimes) isn’t on the budget committee. Seniority weighs heavily on the committees.
Personality does matter, and so do personal relationships. The legislature is a little “in-a-bubble” society. Legislators learn who they can trust and who they can’t, who will come through in a tough spot and who might cave, and who is essentially decent and fair-minded and who could use a little more of those qualities. There are plenty of personal friendships in the legislature, and that can affect a lot of votes. Legislators who develop strong friendships easily can be important in the legislature, whatever their other qualities. A vote for someone to lead the caucus often comes down to those kind of personality factors: Who am I comfortable with, and who can I trust?
Sometimes the flip side can apply as well: Committee spots and other goodies sometimes have been said to be horse-traded in return for leadership votes. So a skillful deal-maker can advance as well.
What kind of group are you in? Is it large enough to have decisive influence? Democratic legislators are, in their two caucuses, part of small groups, and so often have little influence. If the majority Republicans are split, however, the Democrats’ unified caucuses can matter. The same goes for the various factions within the Republican caucuses, some of them based on personalities or backgrounds (veteran watchers still recall “Sirloin row” in the Senate) and some based around issues or ideology.
Many a veteran legislator has remarked on how the legislature is a study in people. If someone rises toward the top, or is slapped down, look there first for the explanation.