September 19th, 2020


Not A State Of The Union, But A Chance For Trump To State His Presidency's Case

Bill Whalen

By Bill Whalen

Published Feb. 28, 2017

First things first, with regard to President Trump's address to a joint session of Congress - the first of his young presidency: it's not a State of The Union.

There are two reasons why newly elected presidents avoid this label, one having to do with rhetorical trickery. The cheapest applause line in such events is the President telling the packed house: "the state of the union is strong."

Well, if so, then why was Trump elected - or, for that matter, the three other change-the-course presidents who preceded him?

The second explanation: first joint addresses are about putting a bow on the package. The formal title of Reagan's congressional address in early 1981 included these two words: "economic recovery". It set the stage for tax reform in year one of the Reagan presidency. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton opted for "administration goals" (translation: laundry list). George W. Bush preferred "budget message" (here's a list of presidential addressing going back to Woodrow Wilson, if you have the time and the stomach).

Trump's theme on Tuesday night? Something along the lines of what White House Press Secretary Sea Spicer has hinted: "where we've come and where we're going".

Here are four things I'm looking for as we approach Tuesday night:

The Moment. Let's briefly review that early state of the last three presidencies. Clinton and Barack Obama inherited struggling economies; the younger Bush inherited political controversy. The two Democratic presidents talked new ideas and stimulating growth; Bush 43 used his time on the big stage to sell the country on the notion of compassionate conservation (i.e., he wasn't going to lay waste to entitlement spending).

Trump didn't inherit hardship - not in the purest sense. His goal to is boost the current mediocrity to 4% GDP growth. What he does have to address is economic duality: 61% of Americans who believe the economy is strong, but only 42% who believe it's on the right track.

One thing we do know about Tuesday night: it's a big moment for Trump - to showcase credibility in the most presidential of setting and to convince a wary electorate and a huge viewing audience (Obama's first such address drew an estimated 52 million viewers) that he can be as effective at governing as he is at showmanship and Twitter slap-fighting.

The Pre-Sell. An effective speech not only includes well-constructed text and solid delivery, but establishing realistic expectations.

Trump aides, for example, hard-peddled the notion of a president-elect working hard on his inaugural address, thus teasing us with the possibility of something not heard before Trump. And then he delivered address that was abbreviated, hard-edged and too reminiscent of his anti-establishment convention speech.

If indeed we're seeing a different version of Trump, the White House should be raising that bar. Beginning with the Sunday talk shows, Trump emissaries should make it clear as what the Presidents goals are going into Tuesday night; on Monday, some speech drips and drabs should start leaking (a leak in the Trump White House? That could never happen . . .)

The Content. The expectation is Trump taking a victory lap for early action - executive orders, working with businesses. And it wouldn't be a Trump speech without campaign braggadocio (we can debate all day whether Trump actually believes the incorrect electoral math he likes to repeat, or he just does it because he knows it drives the media nuts).

The content I'm looking for: timetables and specifics.

Trump has coasted to this point promising life-altering tax reform, Obamacare replacement and changing of the political culture. Now's the time to be specific as to what's in the packages and to inform the attending members when he expects results. Is he serious about having a tax plan done by the August congressional recess, as his Treasury Secretary has suggested?

When Trump gets caught in the Washington process game? He ceases to be a disruptive force.

The Tone. Since his inaugural, only once has Trump ventured into prime-time television: the Gorsuch nomination. Otherwise, most of the talk has come early in the day.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Morning Trump is combative and bombastic whereas Evening Trump was stately and polite.

The wrong tone on Tuesday night: reliving Hillary Clinton's failure; his war with the media. I'm guessing there will be moments when he'll be tempted to take the bait: Democratic members may not give him a standing ovation when he's first introduced by House Speaker Paul Ryan; ala Obama and a Republican congressman, heckling from the audience.

The right tone for Trump: a call for action, while at the same time tactfully humbling official Washington.

Here, another Clinton comes in handy - Bill, not Hillary.

In his 1993 address, President Clinton when through a long list of agenda items - cutting spending, departmental innovation, taxing the wealthy. But as the speech winded down, Clinton sought to put the political establishment on the defensive, with these words:

"Tonight the American people know we have to change. But they're also likely to ask me tomorrow and all of you for the weeks and months ahead whether we have the fortitude to make the changes happen in the right way. They know that as soon as I leave this Chamber and you go home, various interest groups will be out in force lobbying against this or that piece of this plan, and that the forces of conventional wisdom will offer a thousand reasons why we well ought to do this but we just can't do it.

Our people will be watching and wondering, not to see whether you disagree with me on a particular issue but just to see whether this is going to be business as usual or a real new day, whether we're all going to conduct ourselves as if we know we're working for them. We must scale the walls of the people's skepticisms, not with our words but with our deeds. After so many years of gridlock and indecision, after so many hopeful beginnings and so few promising results, the American people are going to be harsh in their judgments of all of us if we fail to seize this moment."

It's worth noting that if Clinton was Jonah and Washington the whale in 1993, it's the whale the got the better of the situation: Clinton struggled in his congressional relations in his first two years on the job; voters punished him in the midterm election.

Thus the need for Trump not merely to put Washington on notice, but to choose an achievable policy goal (think Ronald Reagan getting a tax reform to bill just six months after his first congressional address).

More so than bickering with the media, that's what winning looks like.

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Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he studies and writes on current events and political trends. In citing Whalen as one of its "top-ten" political reporters, The 1992 Media Guide said of his work: "The New York Times could trade six of its political writers for Whalen and still get a bargain." During those years, Whalen also appeared frequently on C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and CNBC.