Speeches to a joint session of Congress are normally used to outline a president’s legislative agenda, but Tuesday is also an opportunity for President Trump to both deliver on his campaign promises and provide some much-needed hope for Americans who are still worried about his presidency.
“I think the most important thing for Donald Trump,” said former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer on MSNBC Monday, “is to give hope to the people who are convinceable that Donald Trump is the person who can get us to where he wants to go policy-wise.”
“The best of these speeches have a theme,” agrees speechwriter John Shosky, who worked in the Reagan and (both) Bush administrations. “In fact, the best recent one, by Reagan [in 1983], was about the economy. Otherwise, they are an incoherent mass of ideas.”
Along those lines, Trump should avoid the presidential habit of rolling out a laundry list of non-sequitur spending projects, and focus instead on an overarching motif—one that ironically hearkens back to his predecessor: hope and change.
Americans are yearning for unity and optimism, and—at the risk of sounding cliché—Trump’s theme should be unifying, conciliatory, and inspirational. “The State of the Union is typically the worst speech of the year,” Shosky warns. “It is amazing that we even watch it. But it shows how much we long for that direction.”
So how can he do it? At least part of this involves style. I asked Stephen Clouse―a communications expert who has personally produced and/or coached video tapings with Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Ted Cruz, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, and many others―what advice he would offer President Trump.
“Watch Steve Jobs’ iPhone introduction or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech for inspiration,” Clouse advises. Trump should “speak to people’s troubles and concerns, and then talk about the future.”
Clouse also believes Trump should modulate his vocal tone. “Make the speech more conversational by softening the tone,” he said. “It will help ratchet down the anxiety some Americans are feeling about him. We need a more pleasant and varied voice.”
It’s true that style matters. Audiences judge politicians more by their body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone than we realize. But words still matter, and one easy way for Trump to win friends is to be more specific with his words.
Sometimes, I suspect, Trump accidentally alienates and offends people by painting with too broad a brush. “The voices in his administration and certainly its critics slur the difference between immigrants and illegal immigrants,” says conservative leader Grover Norquist. Trump “alone can make it clear he welcomes immigrants.”
Norquist also suggests that “a nice comment on religious liberty for Jews, Muslims… all Americans would be nice.”
Trump has dabbled in this area on occasion. However, his speeches often seem disjointed, and he has a tendency to ramble. This was true in both his inaugural speech and his recent CPAC speech. His attacks on the media and his nationalistic populism typically read as authentic and spontaneous, while his more poetic and conciliatory lines feel like canned throwaway afterthoughts. A few benign lines here and there bookended by angry rhetoric or braggadocio does not a winning speech make. For this to be a memorable, unifying speech that appeals to all Americans, he can’t just cherry-pick from a Stephen Miller speech and sprinkle in a few generic “Reaganesque” lines.
“The mistake is to try to be all things to all people. What the government and the people want is… purpose,” warns Shosky.
The good news is that Trump has been so petulant and contentious that the most stunning and devious thing he could do would be to deliver the kind of inspirational speech that summons us to our better angels and inspires us to step out of our comfort zone. If Trump wants to stick it to us—if he wants to leave his critics utterly impotent and in shock—the most beguiling and cunning thing he could do would be to deliver a speech infused with kindness, eloquence, and poetry. It would simultaneously disarm and fascinate his critics.
Trump has set the bar so low that even the slightest hint of self-effacing humor and a desire for unity will go a long way. It would be an amazing turn of events—and one that I’m rooting for. But I won’t hold my breath.