Later this week we will witness the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president.
Inaugurations are a national ritual, a celebration of democracy and a preview of what a president and his administration plan to do in leading the nation.
In their inaugural addresses, presidents usually seek to cast an optimistic air. Few have taken office with broader public dismay than is the case with Trump.
And Trump has heretofore disdained formal speeches, favoring monologues and tweets, especially tweets.
What each of those taking the office tries to do is to set an agenda and then to control the agenda. Setting is relatively easy; controlling not so easy.
Inaugurations are not necessarily remembered for a president’s speech, but they do produce memorable and iconic scenes.
I have attended eight inaugurations, and watched others on television as I will this week. For those I have attended, sometimes it meant standing amongst a throng on the Capitol grounds on a frigid day, other times with a closer-up view from the Senate steps (1969) before Reagan in 1981 moved the ceremonies to the West front of the Capitol with its majestic sweeping vista, or even inside the Capitol with an excellent view of the outdoor proceedings. Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t necessarily a supporter of the president being installed. In some cases tickets were available and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see history in the making.
The most memorable words for me didn’t come at an inauguration I attended, but John F. Kennedy’s oft-cited 1961 exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Many of us in my generation took this as a call to public and civic service.
But for all Kennedy’s confidence and vigor, it wasn’t long after his inauguration that he was mired in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, then perceived as weak and inexperienced in his Vienna summit with Soviet leader Khrushchev, which may have emboldened the communist construction of the Berlin Wall and other actions. Astute media management helped JFK retain a tenuous hold on the agenda but he dealt with less aggressive media coverage than did his successors.
In 1965, I saw my first inauguration in person, driving with friends through snowy conditions to be in Washington as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. Despite his landslide victory in 1964 and his vaunted political skills, LBJ became bogged down in the Vietnam war, faced growing dissent, leading him to forgo a run for re-election in 1968.
Subsequent presidents have struggled to control the agenda. Nixon was eventually consumed by Watergate. The Iranian hostages story and malaise overtook Carter. For Reagan it was Iran-Contra. The elder Bush was well in control during the first Gulf War but the economic problems became dominant. Clinton had his moments of agenda control but had to deal with unending “scandal” stories, most of which were unfounded, but led to an impeachment and resurgent Republicans in Congress.
Bush the younger had broad leeway in the aftermath of 9-11, but the Iraq war, the clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina, and a cratering economy left him with limited control.
Barack Obama’s agenda was dominated by Obamacare, but it was his opponents who often were in control, with an unending barrage of criticism. Unlike many of his predecessors, and despite some dedicated detractors, Obama leaves office with a comparatively high approval rating.
All presidents are control freaks, and Obama’s successor takes that to a new level. And seldom has a president taken office engulfed in more controversy than is the case with Trump.
Much of the time for the past year Trump has controlled the agenda, sometimes using his now-familiar tweets to determine the daily meme.
As his predecessors have experienced in the days after their inaugurations, unexpected and unpredictable events can present major challenges and at times rather than controlling the agenda, agendas have controlled presidents.
Trump has often been effective in countering his political foes and has engaged in a constant struggle with major elements of the media to control the agenda. That battle seems certain to continue after the inauguration as we face a momentous and portentous struggle ahead.
Hoyt Purvis is an emeritus professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com .
Print Headline: Controlling the agenda