For Trump′s State of the Union, the medium is the message | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 30.01.2018
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For Trump's State of the Union, the medium is the message

The State of the Union presents many obstacles for Donald Trump, an unorthodox leader who enjoys freewheeling rhetoric, three former presidential speechwriters say. One is that he cannot address a key current issue.

In a ranking of presidential speeches based on their formality, staidness and lack of rhetorical embellishments, State of the Union addresses finish near the top. That's because they are usually an extensive laundry list of the administration's legislative agenda for the coming year interspersed with designated applause lines for Congress members.

A State of the Union speech succeeds, however, when it does not only draw applause from the president's party, but manages to deliver a concrete legislative plan that a majority of Americans can rally behind.

Read more: How Donald Trump changed things in 10 easy lessons

And here is where things get complicated for US President Donald Trump. 

He is averse to formal speechmaking — he ridiculed his presidential predecessor, Barack Obama, and his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, for using a teleprompter, which is generally used for longer speeches — and he relishes political rallies and Twitter, where he can speak off the cuff, insult other politicians and generally talk about whatever happens to cross his mind at the time.

A teleprompter with remarks for President Barack Obama

Trump has ridiculed the use of teleprompters

Trump's political agenda is frequently unspecific, tends to shift and is, therefore, difficult to translate into tangible legislative goals that can pass even a Republican-controlled Congress. There is a reason that the recent tax cut was the only major legislative achievement in Trump's first year in office.

And Trump is, according to opinion polls, not only a highly unpopular president, which is unusual this early in his tenure, but — arguably even more importantly — a deeply divisive president.

Americans can hardly imagine a 'presidential' Trump 

Precisely because no analysis of Trump's speech can forgo the issues that have so far shaped his tenure — his unpredictability and penchant for fiery language, his shifting policy stances and his divisiveness — any ordinary evaluation of his remarks would be insufficient.      

"These kinds of questions, the idea that these are the things that we should be looking for, is just a signal of how deeply different and abnormal in many ways this presidency is," saidVinca LaFleur, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.

Ironically, Trump's frequent tweeting and his verbal rhetorical outbursts can make any attempt at formal oratory look awkward.

Read more: 'Don't retweet Donald Trump and don't use his language'

"Bizarrely, I think if he gives a sound, typical State of the Union that another president might have given, it will almost sound false," LaFleur said. "I think the public has a very good sense of what he really sounds like, how he really expresses himself, and what he really thinks and what he really doesn't think."

With a public image that already appears to be etched in stone for his supporters and his opponents alike, is Trump even interested in trying to expand his narrow base and build a broader coalition for some of his legislative goals?

Barack Obama's final State of the Union address

Despite a hostile Congress, Obama was roundly praised as a gifted orator

Fresh opportunity

Mary Kate Cary, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and now a senior fellow for presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, is not convinced as Trump has squandered many chances.

"I think this is yet another opportunity for him," Cary said, adding that she considered his remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos a positive sign because he did not depart from the script. "I like to think that it is getting slightly better as he ages in office," she said, noting that there is stark difference between "what I call teleprompter Trump and Twitter Trump." 

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Mixed reception for Trump speech in Davos

Though Cary acknowledges that it will be difficult for Trump to, if not overcome, at least begin to chip away at Americans' preconceived perceptions of him and give his policy proposals a fair hearing, she believes it might still be possible.

On the other hand, Sarada Peri, a former speechwriter for President Obama, does not.

"There's no speech he could give — however well written — that would alter people's already hardened perceptions of him, whether adoration, hatred or resigned tolerance," Peri wrote in an email. "There's no script he could read that would persuade Americans that he understands a whit about policy or has a meaningful agenda or strategy."

Read more: The Donald Trump effect: Core supporters hungry for more

"And there's nothing he can say — after years of race-baiting, trafficking in white nationalism, questioning the first black president's Americanness, not to mention xenophobic, sexist, hateful language — that could unify the country," Peri wrote. 

#MeToo off limits

LaFleur, the former Clinton speechwriter, agreed that it will be very difficult for President Trump to credibly connect with Americans, as presidents routinely try to do in State of the Union speeches, by addressing major current issues that people care about.

As an example of an issue that is on the minds of many people, but off-limits for Trump, she mentioned the global #MeToo movement and the domestic sexual abuse trial of a former USA Gymnastics team doctor: "This president can't talk about any of that."

"I actually do think that speeches can change things," LaFleur said. "But you can't separate the speaker from the speech."

"Too much has happened," LaFleur said. "I think we know who he is."

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