There are two ways to read Glenn Youngkin’s inaugural address to the people of Virginia as their 74th governor.
One way is that it was an uplifting, optimistic speech.
The other is that it was full of empty words.
Which interpretation you choose likely depends on your political point of view. That may have always been our way but it is certainly the way today.
For those who subscribe to the latter point of view, I’ll remind them that inaugural addresses have rarely been occasions for new governors to say anything we didn’t already know, or to lay out the deep details on public policy. By that measure, there is nothing for critics (of whom there will be plenty) to be newly disappointed in. Youngkin said nothing in the address that he didn’t say during the campaign.
On the one hand, that’s a good thing, right? There were no unexpected surprises. On the other hand, there were no lines that will be long remembered, such as Linwood Holton’s emphatic declaration that “the era of defiance is behind us” in 1970 or Douglas Wilder’s poignant pronouncement that “I am a son of Virginia” in 1990. Instead, he pledged “to restore trust in government, and to restore power to the people.” That’s something probably every governor says, especially after a change in parties.
Actions, they say, speak louder than words, and some of the executive orders that Youngkin signed on his much-touted “Day One” will have more consequence than the words that preceded them.
Youngkin did deliver his inaugural address in the same way that he delivered his campaign speeches – with a smile and an easy manner. As a nation, we still live in the shadow of the glowering, perpetually pessimistic Donald Trump (some, it seems, prefer that shadow). Youngkin is no Donald Trump. He is no Ron DeSantis, either, who seems just as hard-edged and confrontational and perhaps even less interested in science. Youngkin is much more like Ronald Reagan, always sunny and optimistic. This is a much better look for Republicans.
There will be plenty to disagree about, there always is, but Youngkin signals that Virginia, at least, seems to have returned to a more normal political environment. He thanked outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam for being “so gracious and supportive” during the transition, which, of course, was not simply a transition from one governor to another but from one party to another. (That’s a warmer farewell than House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, gave on Wednesday, when he tweeted after Northam’s final State of the Commonwealth Address that the outgoing governor was “his own lost cause,” so not all Republicans may be in tune with Youngkin’s tone.) At a time when our history is still very much part of the present, Youngkin acknowledged what some take to be obvious, that ours is a “country with chapters of great injustice” and how “at times we’ve failed to live up to our ideals.” He invited a Muslim – Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke – to be part of the symbolic inaugural committee. Some may see these as hollow words and gestures, but they are words and gestures we didn’t see from the last Republican president, so it’s good for our civic health to hear them from our present Republican governor.
Youngkin lamented a “rise in divisiveness in the public square” and observed that “our politics have become too toxic.” There was nothing, though, about what to do about that – although I suppose that some of the things I cited above do serve as a passive form of tonic. Still, Youngkin missed an opportunity to quote a Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who in his first inaugural address as president also spoke to a sharply divided nation with the healing words: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” However, he did say “somewhere along the way we’ve lost the ability to show respect to one another. To disagree without being disagreeable,” so maybe that’s the same thing. Youngkin does seem to personify that sense that we can disagree without being disagreeable. Democrats won’t like much of what Youngkin is about to do – there will be lots of disagreeing – but Virginians probably won’t spend the next four years wondering what meanness the governor has just tweeted.
A point of personal privilege, as they say in the legislature: There are certainly some politicians who deserve blame for exacerbating our political divisions and not all are named Donald Trump and not all are Republicans. However, let’s not ignore the obvious: A lot of ordinary people, from across the political spectrum, are to blame for this, too, in the caustic things they post on social media. We could all do well to model Youngkin’s sense of decorum, even those who don’t want to model his politics.
That said, Youngkin also said a lot of things while not saying much about them.
Youngkin began the heart of his speech by addressing the loved ones of the more than 15,000 Virginians who have died due to COVID-19 (15,803, to be exact, according to the Virginia Department of Health). This may surely come as a surprise to one of Youngkin’s fellow Republicans, 5th District Congressman Bob Good of Campbell County, who has called this a “fake pandemic” and, in an interview with The Washington Post last fall, questioned whether it was real because “I don’t even know if I know anybody, on a personal level, who succumbed to the virus.” Youngkin is no COVID denier or even a vaccine denier, even if he does oppose vaccine mandates. During the campaign, he used his stump speech to say he’s been vaccinated and urged others to get vaccinated. Youngkin could have used this platform, his biggest yet, to do the same thing but did not.
Youngkin takes office during a pandemic but it remains unclear just what, if anything, his administration intends to do about that. Many school systems have returned to online classes because the virus is so widespread. “Spread of COVID-19 rampant in Henry County schools,” reports the Martinsville Bulletin. “Hundreds of Halifax County students out due to virus,” reports the Halifax Gazette-Virginian (more than 300, the story says, plus more than 40 employees). “Highland school students, staff are sick, stressed,” reports The Recorder in Highland County. About an hour and a half after he acknowledged more than 15,000 dead, Youngkin inked his second executive order of the day to lift mask mandates in schools. What effect do we think this will have on the spread of the virus? We’ll soon find out. On the other hand, all those localities voted for Youngkin – and by wide margins – so if there’s blame coming, maybe not all of that should be attached to the new governor. People effectively voted for an end to mask mandates, so they’ll have to live (or die) with the effects.
An inauguration is about ceremony (and Virginia does ceremony very well). Some of Youngkin’s first executive orders strike me as ceremonial – such as banning critical race theory, a theory that’s not being taught in the first place. It’s a nice campaign line for those who like such things but seems irrelevant to the real business on the ground. I do wonder what is meant by “ending the use of divisive concepts,” since to some people supply-side economics might be a divisive concept. Youngkin’s executive orders that pull Virginia out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and attempt to cut “job-killing regulations” by 25% seem far more consequential. (The trick, of course, is which regulations are the job-killing ones and which ones aren’t.)
Unlike Northam four years ago, who took note of Virginia’s “crumbling schools,” Youngkin made no mention of the estimated $25 billion backlog in school construction and modernization, costs that are far beyond the resources of many rural local governments without some state help. He made no mention of how he thinks the state’s yet-to-be created cannabis market should be created. He made no mention of how he’d like to see the Clean Economy Act amended (will the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise County get closed early or given a permanent reprieve?) or whether he goes along with the more than 20 bills that would restrict voting in some ways. He made no mention of any of the thousand-plus other issues that are now before the General Assembly. He did make the obligatory reference to how “we are one Virginia,” but we all know that’s not so – not if you’ve paid any attention to the economic and demographic trends that have left Virginia with a bigger disparity between its richest counties and its poorest ones than any state in the Union. (And, as a former man of finance who is said to like metrics, we must assume that Youngkin is familiar with these grim numbers.) We shouldn’t expect that, of course; that’s not what inaugural addresses are about. For all the attention that Youngkin has drawn to what he’d do on Day One, what will really matter will be what he does between Day Two and Day 1,463 on January 17, 2026.