President Trump’s opening words was his entire message: “A clear vision. A righteous mission.”
When it comes to communications strategy, President Trump believes in “time of possession” as the key metric —possession of the narrative, that is. President Obama pioneered flooding the zone with presidential pronouncements of all varieties and at all times —the ESPN bracket ritual, for example— but President Trump via Twitter and the impromptu braces of questions fielded on the fly has begun to play the national media like a monster trout on a master fisherman’s line.
The president rarely, however, uses the big, set-piece speech to mold the narrative, but when he does as he just did with the State of the Union, each has primarily been in service to a single big idea of repudiating the Obama years and establishing the brand of the Trump presidency. And he just did so again.
His Inaugural Address was more a marker than a speech: “American carnage” was what he was inheriting. That address was a boundary line in his mind: Before Trump/After Trump.
His second “big” speech to a joint session of Congress last February 28 was themed on promise-keeping and Exhibit A was the nomination of then Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. That speech was a summation of promises made in the campaign. It’s a useful metric for measuring the 2018 SOTU. He promised Congress in early ‘17 to “demolish and destroy ISIS.” Tuesday night he rightly noted that “the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100% of the territory held by these killers in Iraq and Syria.” Check.
“Just as I promised the American people from this podium 11 months ago,” Trump told Congress Tuesday, “we enacted the biggest tax cuts and reform in American history.” Check again. He did make that promise and the cuts are indeed deep and wide even if the “simplification” is less so. But, as he noted, “the individual mandate is now gone.” (Contrast that with “If you like your doctor….”)
Beginning in the spring of 2017 stretching through to last week, the president took his “big speech” moments abroad, in a trio of addresses each one of was in stark contrast to the words and actions of his predecessor.
In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21 of last year, Trump addressed a large assembly of Arab leaders and demanded they urge their religious leaders to talk to Islamists in the toughest of terms: “your soul will be fully condemned” if you turn to terrorism.
Here was another major “marker” —the toughest, bluntest talk about radical Islam since 9/11, delivered in the Kingdom no less— and combined with
recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and labeling Iran as non-compliant with the Obama-era “nuclear deal”, Trump effectively repudiated all of his predecessor’s foreign policy cornerstones and embraced the new entente of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Israel against Iran, its terrorist proxies and Russia. The State of the Union capped this year of repudiating the massive failures of the Obama years.
A few months after his visit to Saudi Arabia, the president traveled to Poland and delivered his “West is best” address, the central assertion of which was “Our citizens did not win freedom together, did not survive horrors together, did not face down evil together, only to lose our freedom to a lack of pride and confidence in our values. We did not and we will not. We will never back down.” That same confident even jaunty tone was shot through the State of the Union. American exceptionalism reborn and re-embraced.
Then, last week in Davos, a speech reassuring that gathering of elites that America would continue as the leader of the free world: “America first does not mean America alone.” The big dog is back but is going to play well.
Skip forward a week: “As we rebuild America’s strength and confidence at home, we are also restoring our strength and standing abroad.” That’s of a piece with his Davos tour.
Tuesday night’s big theme was an assertion that he’s a keeper of past promises and then he added a new promise of a “New American Moment,” premised on the assertion that “America is a nation of builders.”
That’s pure Trump because he was first and remains, primarily, a builder, first of towers, then of a television show, then of the most unorthodox campaign in American history, now of a presidency of concrete achievement. Like any builder, he touches up the obvious cracks —the unnecessary and off putting cruelty and harsh attacks— and sells the best features. He’s building his record and patching it up as he goes.
So in Big Speech VI the big themes were immigrants and building, integration of new communities (the Dreamers), intervention in the lives of the addicted and infrastructure everywhere for everyone. Upbeat stuff. Big, “broad shoulders” stuff. Good stuff. Keep it up Mr. President. Put away the division, keep the building going. “You will do it, because you can.”