How does Donald Trump's inaugural address compare to those of his predecessors?

Trump's first presidential address was predictably provocative, but also shares DNA with the first speeches of Obama and Bush

How does Donald Trump's inaugural address compare to those of his predecessors?

Picture by Patrick Semansky AP/Press Association Images

Donald Trump's inaugural address today was unlikely to surprise anyone who followed his whirlwind presidential campaign - a mix of anti-establishment sentiment, American nationalism, and a few incendiary remarks.

The new US President has become well known for throwing out the political rule book - but how different was his first presidential speech compared to those of his immediate predecessors?

All the speeches were relatively light on policy but heavy on rhetoric. While few could mistake the words of Donald Trump for those of his predecessors, some common themes can also be detected across the inaugural addresses of three very different men.

On the state of the nation

Donald Trump has become known for his iconic 'Make America Great Again' slogan, and during today's inauguration he doubled down on his negative portrayal of the America left behind by his predecessor.

"Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities," he stated. "Rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential."

"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," he declared. "Our country will thrive and prosper again," he added later, while also stressing "the heart and fight and spirit of America".

In 2009, Barack Obama addressed a country - and indeed a world - rocked to its core by a severe financial crisis, and he did not ignore these challenges. "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age," he said.

However, in contrast to Donald Trump claiming he was inheriting a less than great America, Obama stated: "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less."

George W Bush's remarks, meanwhile, come across as rather less urgent and dramatic than his successors, but he also addressed challenges his country faced.

"We will reclaim America's schools before ignorance and apathy claim more young lives," he pledged. "We will reform Social Security and Medicare, sparing our children from struggles we have the power to prevent, and we will reduce taxes to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprise of working Americans. We will build our defenses beyond challenge, lest weakness invite challenge."

On inequality

Trump's speech, much like his campaign, was also heavily focused on anti-establishment sentiment and criticism of the existing political class.

"For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost," he argued. "Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country." No doubt some such remarks shook the career politicians and, indeed, former presidents sitting right behind him.

"The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," he added - summing up the general tone and theme of his speech.

While such populist sentiment has been a cornerstone of Trump's 'Make America Great Again' campaign, these were also topics addressed by the then newly sworn-in Presidents Obama and (George W) Bush, albeit in rather less provocative language.

In 2009, Obama argued: "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart. Not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. "

Similar sentiments were expressed by President Bush in 2001. Early in his inaugural address, he suggested: "While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice of our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth. And sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country. We do not accept this, and we will not allow it."

On terrorism and Islamic extremism

Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama took up office amid the ongoing - and seemingly never-ending - 'war on terror'. For Obama, he was sworn in almost eight years after September 11th 2001, and the aftermath of that fateful day saw radical changes to US foreign policy and military focus. For Trump, a pledge to fight Islamic State was one of the central pillars of his campaign.

Obama referenced terrorism in his speech, observing: "For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken - you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

However, he also notably followed this with a call for a more positive and unified approach to dealing with the Islamic world. He declared: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy."

Trump, in contrast, used unusually strong language that left little room for compromise, something that will encourage his supporters while doing little to calm concerns of those opposed to American interventionism. He announced: "We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and unite the civilised world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth." 

On foreign relations

All three men addressed the wider topic of foreign policy. President Obama devoted several hundred words to the subject, and how global threats "demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations".

He described the US as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth." He directly addressed and pledged to assist "the people of poor nations", while warning that prosperous nations "can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders".

George W Bush was a little more defensive in his language. He told the world: "The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world, by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom. We will defend our allies and our interests. We will show purpose without arrogance. We will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve and strength. And to all nations, we will speak for the values that gave our Nation birth."

A more aggressive tone again was evident in President Trump's remarks. His speech was heavily focused on his by now familiar 'America first' approach, with a strong nationalist tone throughout. "We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon," he suggested.

"We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world," President Trump argued, "but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow."

'God bless America'

America remains a predominantly Christian country, and it should come as little surprise that all three Presidents referenced God prominently in their respective addresses. Indeed, each closed off their addresses with the near identical refrain:

President Bush: "God bless you all, and God bless America."

President Obama: "God bless you. And God bless the United States of America."

President Trump: "God bless you, And God bless America."