Following President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, many commentators focused on how Trump was able to seem more “presidential.” However, that commentators saw this speech as stable and on-topic does not reflect a shift in Trump’s approach to leadership, but rather the extent to which the bar for acting “presidential” has been lowered.
In the Obama era, the President maintained stability and accountability, coordinated cogent policy, engaged genuinely with opponents across the aisle and the American people, and projected American values such as a respect for human rights and equality for all U.S. citizens. Did Trump’s speech embody any of these characteristics? It did not.
First of all, that Trump managed to give a relatively continuous and on-topic speech should not distract from the disorganization with which he has conducted his first weeks in office.
But even within his supposedly stable address, the President faltered. Rather than seek genuine cooperation with Democrats, he punctuated a faux call for unity by repeatedly and petulantly pointing his finger at the Democratic side.
He praised the heroism of Navy SEAL Senior Chief William Owens, killed in Yemen in a botched raid, but again failed to take accountability for this death. Earlier, Trump blamed his generals for the mistake, and in his speech he claimed that the fallen SEAL was “looking down…and he’s very happy” because of the long standing ovation his mention earned Trump. Trump, it seems, is happy to profit politically from the death of servicemen, but does not understand nor accept that, as commander in chief, the responsibility for that death lies with him.
The President continued his narrative of “American carnage,” groundlessly calling the nation one of “lawless chaos” due to illegal immigration and terrorism. He asserted without backing that his travel ban has been well-conducted and that his border wall will be effective and well-financed. Notably, the Muslim travel ban does not affect any nations which have had nationals commit attacks on U.S. soil, and the border wall has been estimated to cost more than three times what Trump claims.
These continuing baseless assertions are concerning, as they suggest that the central strategy of the Trump Administration will indeed be to prioritize emotional appeals over cogent policy. To ignore the prejudiced views of many of his supporters would be, as The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart put it, a politically correct evasion of the facts.
Of course, the hallmark of Trump’s campaign and administration has been his astounding capacity to lie and be believed. His claims of American chaos are still supported by the debunked stats and made-up events that littered his Twitter feed in the early campaign, and his assertion of a fake attack in Sweden during the speech was just another example of deceit.
If to be “presidential” one must convey stability, accountability, understanding of policy, and honest engagement with the American people and the rest of the government, then Trump has failed.
If, instead, we concede and redefine “presidential” as the ability to speak continuously for an hour, then Trump is presidential. However, if we do so and the traits of a leader are glaringly absent, the content of the speech is what The Economist terms the “identity over policy politics” of the new right, and the speech fails to touch on an almost comical volume of allegations of Russian contact, then surely the term “presidential” has lost all meaning.