Trump can broaden appeal with optimism, conciliatory tone in SOTU

Trump can broaden appeal with optimism, conciliatory tone in SOTU
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The State of the Union message is a little delayed this year, a victim of Washington’s inability to get things done.

It’s not the first time it’s been postponed; President Reagan moved the 1986 address in the wake of the Challenger disaster. And it’s still well within the constitutional requirement, set forth in Article II, Section 3, Clause 1, that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union.”


For much of our history there was no address. The president simply sent a written report to Congress. Although George Washington gave the first address in 1790, it was mercifully short, consisting of only about 1,000 words. Jimmy Carter managed to give us more than 30,000 in the longest message, albeit written not spoken.

The modern media age transformed the State of the Union message into the spectacle it’s become. Since Woodrow Wilson broke with custom and delivered his message directly to Congress, Franklin Roosevelt developed the modern practice of delivering the report personally, and he used radio to amplify his message as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge already had done. Harry Truman became the first president to deliver his address on television, making it an event for all Americans to see. Fifty million viewers are expected to tune in Tuesday night.

The run-up to the State of the Union address generally has exceeded the speech itself. The media hubbub leading up to the main event exceeds the Super Bowl pregame show. The chatter about who’s sitting with whom, who’s wearing what, and who’s skipping the event sounds more like a junior high prom.

Once the serious business of the evening gets under way, it’s always the president’s night. With all of the trappings of official Washington, D.C., in full display, the president has the opportunity to speak not only to the dignitaries assembled in the chamber, but to the nation through the lens of the television cameras. His speech is punctuated by numerous ovations, each of them carefully counted and chronicled by the media.

Not much of what presidents say in their State of the Union message is long remembered. State of the Union messages aren’t usually the soaring rhetoric of inaugural addresses. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, such as Richard Nixon’s “One year of Watergate is enough” and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE’s promise that “The era of big government is over.”

This year’s State of the Union message could be different. It could be the most important speech of the Trump presidency.


At a time when the nation is disgusted by the politics-of-usual in Washington and the inability to do the people’s business, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE says his message will focus on “unification.”

If he can stress an optimistic outlook, a conciliatory tone and a bold outline of what he hopes to accomplish, he can expand his appeal, broaden his base and take a gigantic step towards success in 2020.

President Trump’s “Lenny Skutnik” may offer us a first clue. Skutnik was an obscure Congressional Budget Office worker who dove into the icy waters of the Potomac to help save the life of an airline passenger that had crashed into the river in January 1982.

Asked by President Reagan to join him at the State of the Union, he was singled out for his heroism and became a symbol for the night’s address. Since then, his name has been synonymous with heroes who have punctuated a presidential point during the State of the Union.

It’s likely that President Trump will have someone impacted by illegal immigration. Might he also have an immigrant with a story of human triumph that culminates with being an American? Will he have someone whose life has been dramatically improved as the direct result of his booming economy?

There’s an opportunity for the president to avoid the potential pitfalls of brinkmanship and a threatened declaration of national emergency over his quest to get additional barriers on our southern border.

Tone is the key to the address. If the president pivots on both tone and policy specifics on immigration, he can win the night, box in congressional Democrats, and win over persuadable and swing voters.

Offering a deal to save the Dreamers, those who are trapped in a broken immigration system, would do that. President Trump has called their plight “a source of shame.” It’s pretty clear that, ultimately, the compromise on immigration will include Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for the Dreamers, H-1B visa reform and funding for additional border security, and the wall. Why not put it in front of congressional Democrats in full view of the watching world?

A clear proposal for the Dreamers, coupled with additional funding for border barriers, might not sit well with some on the periphery of Trump’s base. But his base is intensely loyal. They see or find wisdom in his every move. Like Nixon going to China, Trump may be able to do what others in his party couldn’t. This is his moment.

The economy is the president’s biggest selling point. The January jobs report and uptick in the market infuse new optimism into his message. If he can announce some major breakthrough in trade negotiations with China, the one fly in the economic ointment, he can hit another home run.

An expansive plan to insure American safety and stimulate economic growth through improving our decaying transportation systems enjoys broad, bipartisan support and would be another solid hit for the president.

On the foreign front, the president has a good story to tell, but people outside the Beltway aren’t focusing on more than a couple issues at a time. Trump will tell us his successes, including his upcoming summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his leadership in dealing with Venezuela, but domestic policy will be what’s remembered.

Unlike Trump’s first State of the Union address, this time House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Trump denies 'tantrum' in meeting with Pelosi: 'It is all such a lie!' MORE (D-Calif.) will be sitting directly behind him, her every glance and grimace in full view. How she reacts will tell a lot. We won’t have to wait for the post-game pundits or the official Democratic response.

Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns. He began his career on the campaign staff of Ronald Reagan. A nationally recognized expert in strategic communications, he is CEO of Quantum Communications, a Pennsylvania-based media relations and issue advocacy firm.