There will be fewer balls (three, down from Obama’s 10), fewer celebrities (no Beyoncé or Jessica Simpson), fewer members of Congress (John Lewis started something) and almost certainly dramatically fewer people on hand to watch (Obama set the record in 2009: 1.8 million).
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Yet a day marked by traditions and pageantry, with minute details dictated by the Constitution, will come with dramatic stakes for a nation still divided by an ugly presidential campaign and its aftermath. The centerpiece will be an inaugural address that aides say will be brief, but also "beautiful."
Here are some of the big themes to watch with the 58th Presidential Inauguration, which will install the 45th President of the United States:
This is a pivot point in American history, and it’s a clean break that might have a messy aftermath. This change of administrations is more dramatic in part because it marks shifts that are simultaneously cultural, political and personal. The contrasts between the outgoing and incoming presidents could not be more stark; "sort of opposites," to cite Obama’s quote about them, doesn’t begin to capture the contrasts. This goes for the 44th and 45th presidents themselves as well as the people who got them there. For all the millions of Americans who are dismayed and even disgusted by this moment, there are many millions for whom this is a moment of great hope -- their voice being heard like their neighbors’ were eight years ago.
The news doesn’t slow down for pageantry, and surely won’t under a president who may tweet during his parade ride down Pennsylvania Avenue. As a candidate, Trump promised fast action on his first day. He’s been less than clear -- and sometimes contradictory -- on a range of key details, and Trump has since made clear that he’s considering his first real day to be Monday.
He has at times said he would immediately reverse all Obama executive orders he considers unconstitutional, end admission of Syrian refugees and start action on both repealing Obamacare and building the border wall. That doesn’t count vague promises like restoring "the rule of law to our land." The initial hours of the Trump presidency promise drama. And the guessing game is on over whether FBI Director James Comey -- reviled on the left, and mistrusted by the Trump camp -- will be the first holdover official to be told he’s fired.
TRUMP V. WORLD
Nixon had an enemies list. Trump has Twitter. The list of people and institutions Trump is warring with has only grown since the election: NATO, the CIA, the FBI, CNN, Mexico, China, Angela Merkel, John Lewis, Meryl Streep ... and Hillary Clinton, yes, still. It’s a remarkable set of adversaries for someone who hasn’t actually taken the job yet. That doesn’t even take into account the public’s views. Trump is taking office at a level of unpopularity that no modern president saw at his inauguration, and it’s not even close. In the hours before he takes office, Trump is still fighting battles from the campaign -- and putting new adversaries on notice. Will the trappings of office change his behavior? Not many are counting on a brand new Trump.
They are counting down the days in the Kremlin. But what happens when Trump actually occupies the Oval Office? No relationship has drawn more scrutiny than the incoming president’s stance toward Vladimir Putin, a man he still hasn’t met face-to-face. Trump has indicated, belatedly, that he seems convinced that Russia was behind the election hacks, though he’s putting in his own task force on the matter. Even less clear is what Trump intends to do about it, as Russians celebrate the start of an American administration some believe will be pro-Russia. Trump’s Russia stance is complicating confirmation for his top officials and will animate critics inside his own party on Capitol Hill and beyond. Then there’s the matter of active investigations of alleged Russian contacts with his campaign, and unsubstantiated claims that Putin has dirt on the incoming American president --- questions that will not disappear once Trump is in charge.
Trump doesn’t ride into town solo, and he sure doesn’t ride into town traditional -- not with a parade route that will take him past a new hotel that bears his last name. Like his business operations, the Trump presidency is shaping up to be a family affair. Son-in-law Jared Kushner has a senior White House job and prime office space, and daughter Ivanka Trump is spearheading her own agenda. Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have been placed in charge of the Trump Organization’s business operations and will still be allowed to cut new deals while their father is president (there will be stricter limits on new foreign deals). Melania Trump’s role remains the most nebulous, and the fact that she’ll spend much of her time in New York with the couple’s 10-year-old son, Barron Trump at least until the end of the school year, means traditional first lady roles may fall to other family members. What’s certain is that Donald Trump is leaving an imprint on Washington even before moving into the White House.
United government has never looked this, well, weird. Donald Trump has nominated or named just about all of his top officials, but the ranks of deputies and below will take some time to fill, and agencies report slow-going handoff conversations. Confirmation battles are heating up for a few of his picks, starting with his choices to lead the State Department and Health and Human Services. Then there’s the matter of Trump’s new teammates in Congress, who are viewing the new administration warily and a bit wearily -- yes, already. After the president-elect takes office, Trump will be forced to put policy meat on contradictory bones he offered during the campaign. He’s displayed little respect for or deep understanding of the legislative process so far. He’ll have to work with two Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who were rather frank in not wanting him to become the GOP nominee in the first place. The new president, we’re told, holds grudges.
President Obama is leaving office -- and will leave town, though only briefly -- with an upbeat public stance about the transfer of power in a constitutional democracy. The same can’t be said about all his followers, among them many for whom the Trump inauguration is traumatic and terrifying. (One question: Will the "Women’s March on Washington," scheduled for the day after the inauguration, approach the kind of numbers drawn by the Trump inauguration?) The Obama legacy hangs in the balance with the start of the Trump era, and it has only a tenuous hold. Obamacare is already being unwound, executive orders on immigration can be rescinded, and the Supreme Court vacancy will likely be filled within weeks. Democrats are galvanized by the fights to come against Trump, though they lack the votes to stop him so long as he keeps the GOP united. As for Obama himself, he’ll back in Washington soon enough, and has said he won’t stay silent if he sees his values coming under assault. Other prominent Democrats -- including Vice President Joe Biden -- may stay even closer to the action.
Trump’s Twitter war with a civil-rights icon has opened the floodgates for Democratic boycotts of his inauguration. More than 50 and counting have said they are following Rep. John Lewis’ lead, a solemn and strong statement, aimed directly at questioning Trump’s very legitimacy. Trump has not handled questions around the validity of his victory with any particular grace. Not even former President George W. Bush -- who took office after a bitter recount settled by a divided Supreme Court -- has had this many Americans and this many members of Congress maintaining that his installation in the office was not legitimate.
Four of the five living presidents will be on the steps of the Capitol (only former President George H.W. Bush can’t make the trip) to welcome a sixth member to that most exclusive club. But the image of that gathering could hardly be more striking. President Obama cedes power to a man who questioned his constitutional eligibility for the job, and whose election is a repudiation of what he sought to achieve. The presence of former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton serve as a reminder that Trump took down both of the dominant political dynasties of the past three decades en route to the presidency. Then, of course, there’s Hillary Clinton, who will be on the platform by virtue of her status as a former first lady. Trump continues to maintain that his opponent was "guilty as hell" and shouldn’t have been allowed to run. Every facial expression exhibited by the Clintons will have the potential to become memes, or more.