On Tuesday, President Trump will address a joint session of Congress, a speech that traditionally serves as a kind of State of the Union address before a president has served a full year. After a first month of rocky rollouts, chronic leaks and a storm of tweets attacking the courts and the press, Politico Magazine convened veteran speechwriters to ask them what Trump needs to do to reassure lawmakers and the public. What tone does he need to strike? On what issue does he most need to reassure critics? Who does he need to directly address?
Their advice runs the gamut both in strategy and in confidence level. Take a page from Ronald Reagan, said his former speechwriter, who in his 1981 debut pledged cooperation with Congress and asked that they make his economic program “our plan.” Understand that his constituents are people and not straw men, advised another. Maybe he should take a tip from President Barack Obama, who often told his speechwriters to “go read some Lincoln.” Or maybe, at this point, he shouldn’t aim too high on the unity thing, because as one former speechwriter put it, if people are “arguing about his policies and solutions as opposed to random side issues, then at least he’s back to playing on the right field.” Here’s what Trump needs to do:
Be like Reagan
Kenneth Khachigian was chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and staff speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.
As President Reagan’s chief speechwriter in 1981, I collaborated with him on his February 18, 1981 speech to a joint session of Congress—a direct counterpart to President Trump’s speech on Tuesday. We were dealing with the economic mess left by Jimmy Carter, and Reagan was faced with a Democratic House that was notably hostile to his economic program.
Trump should take a leaf from Reagan’s book. In the first line of Reagan’s speech that night, he pledged his cooperation with Congress. And midway through the speech he said: “I don’t want it to be simply the plan of my administration. I’m here tonight to ask you to join me in making it our plan.” I believe if President Trump took this tone, he would leave the room with a box full of goodwill.
The singularly most important need for this speech, at this point in his presidency, is to set a roadmap for his emerging policy of economic growth; a foreign policy that would establish a departure from the fecklessness of the Obama years; an outline of responsible regulatory and fiscal reform; and, finally, a border and immigration policy that would meld security and lawfulness with reality and common sense. Tough but humane.
It’s an opportunity for the president to take command of the policy debate in Washington and shape his first year. Sticking to substance, with no departures into political briar patches, will serve him best.
Finally, a little humor and personal charm would go a long way. How about suggesting to Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan that the president would host the Big Four at Camp David to set an “Agenda for American Greatness”: “Chuck, I’ll pour you a beer … and, Nancy, mix you a great martini. Think of what we could accomplish just by sitting down and talking.”
Now that would be fun to watch.
Appeal to people’s better angels
Terence Szuplat was deputy director of White House speechwriting for Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017 and a foreign policy speechwriter at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2017.
Offering advice on what President Trump should say in a speech is a bit like trying to calm down a child in the throes of temper tantrum. Appeals to logic and reason—that hysterics and name-calling won’t get you what you want—are likely to fall on deaf ears.
First, Trump remains the most unpopular president in four decades. His dismal 38 percent approval rating in last week’s Quinnipiac poll puts him near the lows of Richard Nixon the year before he resigned. A majority of Americans say Trump does not share their values, is not level-headed and is not honest. These are ingredients for a one-term presidency. Trump’s political survival—and, more importantly, a robust democracy where Americans don’t view each other as “enemies”—demands that he stop appealing only to his supporters and start speaking like a president who represents all Americans.
Second, Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly concerned about Trump’s relationship with Russia. When Rep. Darrell Issa calls for a special prosecutor to investigate the Trump campaign’s contacts with Moscow before the election, more Republicans are sure to follow. Tuesday’s speech would be the obvious place for Trump to finally condemn Russia’s interference in the election, endorse an independent investigation and resolve to stand up to Russian aggression abroad. And if he does not, his silence will speak volumes about the dangerous turn U.S. foreign policy is taking.
Finally, many Americans are truly terrified of what Trump’s policies mean for their lives. The millions of Americans—including many Trump supporters—who could lose their health insurance with the repeal of Obamacare deserve to hear specifics from the president on what a replacement would look like. Millions of undocumented immigrants deserve to know that deportations of “bad dudes” will not mean the wholesale destruction of immigrant families.
Standing on the floor of the House chamber during Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, I saw how a president can unite a divided nation, even if briefly. Concluding his speech, President Obama told the story of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, who was nearly killed by a bomb in Afghanistan and endured dozens of surgeries as he fought to recover. Up in the balcony, with the help of his father, Cory struggled to stand and gave a proud thumbs up.
For nearly two minutes, Republicans and Democrats stood united in one of the longest ovations in memory. It was a reminder, as President Obama said, that progress is possible “if we summon what it best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him.” If he hopes to succeed as president, Trump will at some point need to appeal to people’s better angels, rather than their darkest impulses. He should shed the persona from his campaign and at his inaugural address, when he delivered a dark vision of an America besieged by globalists, terrorists, immigrants and refugees. Tuesday night would be a good time to change his tone.
Produce an actual plan to govern
Paul Orzulak (@orzulak) is a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a founding partner of West Wing Writers.
Governing is not tweeting. At some point, you’ve got to produce actual legislation longer than 140 characters to make it happen.
So Tuesday is as a good a time as any to produce an actual plan to govern. As the president has learned from the borders he hasn’t been able to close by himself and the wall he can’t build by himself, he needs a slim majority of those in Congress to get anything of substance done. As much as he might wish that presidents could command, in our system, they still have to persuade. So, that’s what I’d like to see: some sign that the president understands and respects the system of checks and balances that has been at the heart of America for more than two centuries.
Maybe President Trump could also take a moment to speak out against the more than 1,000 hate crimes documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center that have been carried out in America since he was elected, nearly half of which mentioned him by name. In the past week alone, we had a Jewish cemetery desecrated, a mosque burned and an Indian man tragically killed in Kansas by an alleged shooter who yelled, “Get out of my country.” Speaking out against such acts of hatred would help his supporters more credibly argue that his presidency isn’t just about the bigotry, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism we’ve seen from this White House so far. It might be a nice gesture—even if he has to fake it.
Trump will never get credit for a good speech
Matt Latimer is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He is currently a co-partner in Javelin, a literary agency and communications firm based in Alexandria, Va., and a contributing editor at Politico Magazine.
Though not billed as an official State of the Union address, this is in effect Trump’s first. The secret that most presidential speechwriters share is that the State of the Union address is the worst assignment in the entire White House. They usually entail months of preparation, days of media hype and then land like a dull thud on the national consciousness, filled with policies, principles and promises that are almost immediately forgotten. After all, what’s the last State of the Union address anyone can remember?
This one, however, will be different. I’d go so far as to say it will in effect be the most important State of the Union in decades (if only because there’s so little competition for the title). The speech is an opportunity for a reset for the administration at a crucial moment, when public opinion is beginning to harden about what the Trump administration is all about. As such, the president needs to get back to what got him this job in the first place: an emphasis on giving voice to the forgotten people across the middle of America; a focus on jobs and economic growth and the campaign promises he made in those areas.
Trump doesn’t have to reinvent himself, but he does have to show that he gets it. That he’s learned how easy it is for a message to be sidetracked by distractions, and that he’s resolved to return his focus to the things that matter most to the American people. A successful address almost certainly won’t win high praise by pundits or the media but if it gets people arguing about his policies and solutions as opposed to random side issues, then at least he’s back to playing on the right field.
Invoke America’s forgotten men and women
Stephen Krupin is a former senior speechwriter to President Obama.
In both his victory and inaugural speeches, President Trump invoked the “forgotten men and women” he claims to fight for—but so far, he’s forgotten to introduce us to them. He hasn’t told us the story of a family that is safer today because refugees are turned away from our shores, nor named any students who are better off because Trump reversed protections for their transgender classmates, nor shared the verifiable experience of someone who voted illegally even as Trump promised to investigate election fraud. Of course, that’s because he can’t.
But policy matters only to the extent that people feel it in their everyday lives—which is what makes governing a different, more difficult sport than campaigning. When he outlines his agenda before Congress on Tuesday night, Trump should at least try to convince us that he understands the presidency is about we, the people, more than it is about him, the personality—and that his constituency comprises actual citizens, not just straw men.
President Obama mastered this storytelling technique. In his 2015 State of the Union address, he introduced the nation to the Erlers, a working family whose financial struggles and recovery personified the country’s. In making the case for Obamacare, he shared the experiences of women like Natoma Canfield, a cancer survivor who can finally count on affordable health insurance. And in speeches at home and abroad, Obama honored the optimism of wounded warriors like Army Ranger Cory Remsburg. Trump, a billionaire marketer, wants to own the populist brand. That’s hard to do when his speeches star himself instead of ordinary Americans.
Go read some Lincoln
David Cavell served as a presidential speechwriter in the Obama White House from 2015 to 2017 and has also written speeches for former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and former Attorney General Eric Holder.
I’ll share the same advice that all of us who wrote speeches for the Obamas were given—usually early in our tenure and often by President Obama himself—“go read some Lincoln.”
Specifically, Trump should take a lesson from Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address and speak to those who disagree with him instead of continuing to preach (or tweet) to the choir. Lincoln had taken only 39 percent of the popular vote, and by his swearing-in, he faced unrelenting criticism from both Democrats and hard-line Republicans as the country careened toward disarray. He could have used this speech to thunder against his opponents. He could have dismissed his many critics in the press to the delight of his dwindling supporters. Instead, Lincoln acted presidential. In one of the greatest passages in the history of political rhetoric, he spoke directly to citizens in the South, promising that “[w]e are not enemies, but friends,” and adding his famous plea that “though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Lincoln’s words did not prevent the Civil War, but they won over moderates, quieted critics and established the effective pragmatism that would define his administration.
Trump would do well to follow the example of the man upon whose Bible he was sworn in just five weeks ago. But I’m not holding my breath.
Surprise his critics
Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author and former speechwriter for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
It’s not that hard to suggest what President Trump should do:
1. Mix a firm commitment to change the way Washington works with a dose of cordiality, comity and even a note of self-deprecation.
2. Blend a strong conservative message—“yes, congressional Republicans, I will lead you to the promised land of lower taxes, a light regulatory end, an end to the “nanny state” of tough environmental rules and “excessive” federal intervention on matters racial and gender-based—with a reassurance that those at the bottom will not be left behind.
3. Say clearly I meant what I said in my campaign about putting “America First,” with a message to the wider world that the United States understands its indispensable role in the world.
But, of course, all of that’s just not in his DNA. It would shock his audience, for instance, if he offered one example of where he thought one of his critics was right, or one example of where he had come to regret his choice of words. Such behavior is so alien to the core of his character that it would be hard to imagine his speechwriters convincing him to speak such words.
Reach out to disaffected Americans
Dan Schwerin was director of speechwriting for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and also wrote for her at the State Department and in the Senate.
The moment calls for a speech about American reconciliation, but I fear all we’ll get is more American carnage.
You might think that after losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million and facing historically bad poll numbers, a new president would use the first address to a joint session of Congress to reach out to millions of disaffected Americans who either didn’t vote in the election or voted for someone else, and to propose policies that could help unify the country. Sadly, I don’t think that’s what we’ll hear from President Trump on Tuesday. So far, he has shown little interest in engaging the majority of Americans who did not support him, regret their vote, or now disapprove of his performance as president. He seems more focused on his war on the free press and his ill-fated Muslim ban than on preparing an infrastructure plan that might garner bipartisan support.