State of the Union: How ‘Teleprompter Trump’ can win the night

Americans have grown accustomed to President Trump’s at times controversial communications via Twitter and his off-the-cuff remarks. But that presents an opportunity for the president to use a staid teleprompter speech to his advantage.

Jim Lo Scalzo/AP/File
President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan, gives an address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. Many commentators, even on the left, judged that speech to be ’presidential.’

A less-familiar version of President Trump is expected to take the podium for his first State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Call him Teleprompter Trump – the version who mostly sticks to the script, can be a bit stilted, and meets the standard definition of “presidential.” Twitter Trump, who regularly sends unfiltered and at times provocative messages to his more than 47 million followers, will be on hold. So, too, will Campaigner Trump, who won the 2016 election and still throws red meat to raucous crowds at rallies around the country.

Therein lies a central feature of this presidency: Mr. Trump’s ability to switch from one persona to the other, by turns reassuring the political establishment and then turning it on its head. The effect can be disruptive and contradictory, but it’s all part of the essential Trump. And on Tuesday night, by deploying the conventional Teleprompter Trump, he can help himself, analysts say.

“Trump was elected to be a disruptor – but people don’t want constant disruption,” says Ari Fleischer, press secretary in the George W. Bush White House. “His teleprompter speeches have won him plaudits… They show that governing is not the same as campaigning.”

Even many Republicans agree that teleprompter speeches are not Trump’s preferred method of communicating – and they often come across as flat and low-energy.

“This president … treats a prepared text, a prepared speech, like a straitjacket from which he cannot escape,” conservative columnist Peggy Noonan observed on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, after watching Trump address world leaders at Davos. Ms. Noonan, who wrote some of President Reagan’s most soaring speeches, added: “He finally gets through it – then he sits down, does an interview, does a Q and A, and becomes Donald Trump again.”

Compared with Trump’s free-wheeling campaign-style appearances, his first State of the Union address may even be a tad boring, in the way that any president delivering an hour-long list of accomplishments and proposals can be. But in a way, that’s exactly the point.

“What you expect him to do in this environment is to act in a way befitting the office,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a moment that elevates the president’s role, because the other branches are there witnessing the speech.”

A ‘unifying’ speech

Administration officials previewing Trump’s speech promise an approach similar to his upbeat address to a joint session of Congress last February, for which he won plaudits even from some liberal Democrats. That speech came in stark contrast to his inaugural address a month earlier, in which he presented a bleak picture of “American carnage.”

Now, a year later, Trump has a record to defend and talk up, as well as an agenda for the year ahead to lay out. The tone toward Congress “will be one of bipartisanship,” said a Trump aide speaking to reporters on background. And to the American people, the official added, the tone will be “optimistic” and “unifying.”

“It is unifying around the greater opportunities for all Americans as a result of the last year's jobs growth and success in the economy,” the official said, noting that the speech will also tout tax reform, deregulation, and the booming stock market.

In addition, Trump will preview his agenda for the year ahead – including a $1 trillion-plus plan for infrastructure; the framework for immigration reform the White House unveiled last week; America’s place in international trade; the opioid crisis; and national security, with special focus on the North Korean nuclear threat.

On its face, this year’s address has the makings of a typical laundry-list State of the Union, in which the various agencies vie for, and often succeed in getting, a mention of their issues and projects.

But this is no ordinary president, and while his aides have promised a unifying address, there’s no predicting what Trump may do in unscripted asides, or what others in the audience may do. Several Democratic members of Congress are boycotting the event, while others are bringing guests aimed at delivering a message – such as the wife of a Michigan “Dreamer” who was recently deported.

Then there are the Democrats who may be tempted to heckle – as Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina did to President Obama during a 2009 speech on health care to a joint session of Congress. Congressman Wilson yelled out “You lie!”

The incident marked a milestone in the steady erosion of decorum in Washington, and analysts say they wouldn’t be surprised if a Democrat decided to act out on Tuesday. How Trump would react is anybody’s guess, but an attack from the left could be a gift to him, as one who has built his political brand on fighting back. With the November midterms approaching, and the battle for control of Congress – particularly the House – already hot, partisan feelings are strong.

That, says Mr. Fleischer, is why this year’s State of the Union is so important to Trump, as an opportunity before a national audience to widen his support.

“President Trump needs to broaden his base and govern for more people, not just some people,” Fleischer says.

The importance of the annual State of the Union message to Congress is elevated by the fact that it is required by the US Constitution. To many Americans, watching the speech represents a civic duty, regardless of party affiliation. And therein lies Trump’s opportunity.

“It’s a speech to celebrate the accomplishments that his base appreciates, but also to widen the audience to include those who might come to appreciate the accomplishments, if they are well presented,” says Ms. Jamieson.

What constitutes ‘presidential’ 

Some Trump critics are warning the media and analysts up front not to get carried away by one well-done – or even non-controversial – State of the Union speech.

“Memo to journalists and pundits … who will comment after the State of the Union: a president reading from a teleprompter for 45 minutes without melting down does not make him presidential,” pundit Norman Ornstein tweeted Sunday. By Monday afternoon, the comment had more than 8,500 retweets and 24,000 likes.

Even if Trump’s first State of the Union speech goes off without a hitch, and Teleprompter Trump prevails, there’s little doubt that the “other” Trumps will be back soon enough. Twitter Trump is likely to have something noteworthy to say Wednesday morning. And Campaigner Trump will reemerge at his next rally.

As a former reality TV star, Trump knows the importance of mixing things up to keep the show interesting, says Walter Podrazik, a lecturer on communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

“This is someone who knows how to pace a TV season,” says Mr. Podrazik, co-author of the book “Watching TV.” “He’s a TV veteran, and that’s why those different tools of communication are important.”

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