Trump's SOTU: an agenda for 2019, a framework for 2020 battle

Trump's SOTU: an agenda for 2019, a framework for 2020 battle
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President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address ran very long by SOTU standards — George Washington gave the shortest one, at barely more than 1,000 words — but, nevertheless, was his most presidential performance yet.

The White House staff did a top-notch job of choreographing the event in many ways.

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I worked for the White House in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan invited Lenny Skutnik to join the gallery and be recognized. Thirteen days earlier, Skutnik had jumped into the freezing Potomac River to rescue a passenger of Air Florida 90, which crashed into the 14th Street Bridge. Reagan held up Skutnik’s dramatic, dangerous rescue as an example of American courage and selflessness. When the president introduced him, the audience rose and applauded, starting a now-unstoppable tradition that reached new heights in this SOTU.

Speech organizers this time outdid themselves by inviting a range of guests, from World War II veterans to a 10-year-old girl who is a cancer survivor. Others may comment on the variety of guests, but most interesting to me is what their presence did for the president’s delivery: They gave him the opportunity to smile at the individual being recognized and to add an occasional off-the-cuff comment, marrying the need to stick to the script with the chance to show his personality. 

One of his guests was an 81-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. It was the man’s birthday, and the audience broke into singing “Happy Birthday.” The president loved it and acted as the musical conductor.

My old boss, Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who had pitched Skutnik’s involvement in 1982, would have been proud of that moving moment.

There is continued debate about whether president should use a TelePrompTer at these events. The SOTU is one of the rare situations that always demand the “glass tyrant,” however. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE’s performance shows why mastering the TelePrompTer is so important, and he did a masterful job.

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Some commentators will point out, correctly, that his address fell into the trap of being a laundry list of issues — in this instance, ranging from tax reform to defense spending to, of course, immigration. Yet, it also had several notable components. Perhaps most important of those, it may serve as the major framing of the 2020 presidential campaign.

In it, Trump threw down the gauntlet to the new crop of Democratic primary contenders, declaring: “The U.S. will never become a socialist nation.” He also pushed the Republican Party into a more populist mode, as he moved further from the idea of limited government with proposals such as a national mandate for paid child care. In his list of issues, debt reduction and fiscal responsibility were notably absent.

He introduced the topic of abortion, which, although important to a small group of voters, has been a background issue in presidential politics. By tagging recent developments in New York (which significantly expanded conditions in which abortion is legal and unlimited) and Virginia (which rejected a similarly radical proposal), the president set the stage for 2020 to be a referendum on abortion as framed by its availability and sanctioned as a woman’s decision up until the moment of birth, and perhaps even after.

This was a risky move for the president, particularly because he made a major pitch to women as a group. His address may or may not have swayed women voters but, again, it appears to be a major framing of the 2020 election — and the president arguably struck the right note, in words and delivery.

Democratic women senators and representatives, many wearing white, mostly sat on their hands and stayed in their seats, but the speech roped them into rising and applauding at certain times. One of those topics was the participation of women in the workforce and, as the applause faded, the president ad-libbed, “Don’t sit down, you’ll like this” — and then proceeded to note that there are more women serving in Congress than ever before. Even Democrats couldn’t resist an enthusiastic response; while that highlighted how many of them are Democrats, it also provided the president with a pro-woman focus.

And it’s worth noting that President Trump’s delivery of the speech was largely letter-perfect. He can be a master of timing, and makes the best use of dramatic pauses since President Reagan; he often waits for his audience to absorb his words and intention.

What will be the headlines or soundbites? The risk with long speeches is that they provide too much opportunity to pick and choose. The administration undoubtedly hopes that the president’s admonition to choose greatness will dominate, along with his declaration that “The State of our Union is strong.” Yet, I worry that one of the memorable sound bites will be less inspiring: “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”

Lastly, the address was noteworthy for its choice of words such as “onslaught” instead of “invasion” to describe the caravans approaching the southern border, and for its contrasts between “socialism” and “freedom” with a number of quotable moments about being born free. Apparently, there was a difference of opinion among the president’s staff about how to describe the sticking point in the border security talks; the president began by describing a “barrier” but then reprised the “wall,” going back and forth with both words.

Final analysis: This was his best speech ever — and, if he can maintain message discipline, a look at what the 2020 election will be about.

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.