WASHINGTON — After the Marine Band plays, after the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings, and after Donald Trump raises his right hand under what is forecast to be a rainy sky, he will approach a podium like 44 presidents before him.
Inaugural speeches by definition are historic moments, but for Trump, the sense of drama and unpredictability have heightened a nation’s anticipation.
Trump will give what for him is a rare formal speech during a ceremony that begins Friday at 11:30 a.m. He will speak to a populace on edge over his tweets, his murky policy ideas, his weak command of facts, and to a nation that is still trying to sort out what his election means for the state of the union. He is the least popular incoming president in modern history, the result of a historically divisive campaign and a rocky transition marked by his open warfare with the intelligence community over its assessments about Russia’s interference in his election.
And while his aides are suggesting that his speech will be about unity and a call to action by a Congress that has become accustomed to accomplishing little in recent years, unity has never been a message that has worked all that well for Trump, a politician who thrives on conflict and drama. In protest of his divisive rhetoric, more than 60 Democratic lawmakers are boycotting his inaugural ceremony.
Trump has written the speech himself, according to spokesman Sean Spicer, and he has been practicing it in recent days. After looking at styles and lengths of past inaugural addresses, Trump’s speech is expected to be about 20 minutes, he said, which would by roughly the same length as Barack Obama’s two inaugural addresses.
“The president-elect continues to make edits and additions to his inaugural address,” Spicer told reporters Thursday morning. “It’s going to be a very personal and sincere statement about his vision for the country. He will discuss what it means to be an American, the challenges that we face.”
He said that Trump planned to talk about infrastructure, education, and manufacturing.
“I think it’s going to be less of an agenda and more of a philosophical document, a vision of where he sees the country, the proper role of government, the role of citizens,” Spicer said.
Some Republicans are hoping that he will return to the fleeting graciousness that he offered on Election Night, when he appeared far more magnanimous than he had during much of the campaign — or since.
“I think most people like to hear a positive upbeat message that’s inclusive and reaches out to the better character of the country. A better angels speech, to use a Lincoln-esque term,” said former US senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, referring to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address a few days before the Civil War began.
“I betcha it’ll be a very different speech,” he added. “He has the ability to capture a different approach to things and step out of traditions. But you can still do that, hopefully, and have an optimistic speech that’s inclusive. That’s what I would hope.”
But many are expecting Trump could just as easily break with tradition and reshape the inauguration the way he has shattered other expectations of what is deemed “presidential.”
“There’s kind of a format that they follow,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “But we know this about-to-be-inaugurated president: That all of the things that we know about how presidents behave in particular circumstances just may not apply.”
Trump on Wednesday posted an image of himself sitting at his home in Palm Beach, Fla.; he wrote that the photo was taken three weeks ago while he was writing his speech. He had a legal pad on the first page, and he was lifting the corner, obscuring whether any text had been written.
Trump told Fox News that he will start the speech by “thanking everybody, all of the presidents — including, by the way, President Obama and Michelle, who have been absolutely nice.”
Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, said that the speech would be unlike some of his predecessors.
“Anybody who’s confusing Donald Trump’s inaugural address with one of those never-ending senseless State of the Unions, where they have the Christmas tree of goodies, will be sorely disappointed,” Conway told MSNBC this week, calling the speech a “very elegant, beautiful, strong, powerful speech in his own words.”
“He is a man who states his case very clearly and very concisely and very convincingly,” she added. “And I predict that that will be a hallmark of this particular address.”
Trump and his advisers are also predicting “record crowds.”
Trump has faced large crowds before but never at an august event like an inauguration. During phases of his campaign he read from a teleprompter but would often abandon the prepared text for his more lively, spontaneous speaking style.
This speech will be before an international television audience, as well as Supreme Court justices, ex-presidents, and everyday people splayed out on the west steps of the Capitol. It is a scene of grandeur and tradition — and one that this year will likely feature a crowd of protesters.
Soothing tensions is not the style of an incoming president who relishes the World Wrestling Entertainment drama of fake fights and body-slams coupled with raw emotions from a crowd.
“This is a situation we haven’t seen before,” said Wayne Fields, a Washington University professor and author of “Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence.”
“His whole career is based on bombast and hyperbole which is inconsistent with what we think of in an inaugural address,” he added. “From George Washington on down, one of the most common themes is humility. Even if he could express it, I’m not sure he could make it credible.”
Several polls released this week showed Trump will be entering the White House with historically low approval ratings. Trump has a favorable rating of 40 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, which is the lowest in at least four decades.
President Obama entered office eight years ago with a 79 percent rating, while George W. Bush — who came into office in 2001 after a deeply divisive election, with questions over his legitimacy — had a 62 percent favorable rating. Americans also disapprove of the way that Trump has handled his transition into office, which historically has been a way for incoming presidents to build goodwill.
“No incoming president has had the level of controversy, not just about one thing but about multiple things,” Fowler said.
In one sign of how concerned some are about the new president, a teacher in Michigan wrote to parents that he will show the inauguration ceremony to his fourth grade class. But he won’t show Trump’s speech, he wrote, out of concern it won’t be age-appropriate “given his past inflammatory and degrading comments about minorities, women, and the disabled.”
Trump has started the transfer of power. He taped the weekly presidential address on Wednesday, which will air on Saturday. He flew to Washington on Thursday in a government plane, forgoing the jet emblazoned with his name for one that instead has the name of the country he will soon represent.
And he is planning to sign four or five executive orders almost immediately on Friday, likely rescinding some of President Obama’s decisions.
But the biggest question remains whether Trump can begin to rally the country and heal some of the divisions that his campaign exploited.
“He has not seemed inclined to change — and up until now it’s that refusal to change that’s served him well,” Fields said. “But up until now his success has been on dividing, by identifying an ‘us and them.’ Now he has to somehow speak to ‘we,’ that’s inclusive.”
“Maybe he can find that voice,” he added. “But the great difficulty is that he has been building a brand all along. And the brand is not one that is easily reconcilable with the presidency.”