President Trump delivered his third State of the Union address on Tuesday, Feb. 4. He did so while under impeachment, although his acquittal was imminent. He addressed Congress on the heels of what was nothing short of a debacle in our election process in Iowa during the year’s first presidential contest.
From a communications strategy perspective, President Trump delivered a fairly traditional State of the Union speech – but, of course, it came with his flair for emotional dramatics. He offered a scripted, straight-from-the-teleprompter address with oversimplified messaging that lacked nuance (and fact). The President continued to amplify a partisan narrative, rather than provide a unifying approach to leadership.
This, of course, was expected. He walked into the House Chamber with a 49 percent approval rating, according to the latest Gallup Poll. He knew what his audience – his base – wanted and needed from this speech.
The Republicans in the room know their President is at his best in front of an adoring crowd, and offered up that adulation. Every State of the Union includes an applause count, but the energy on that side of the aisle turned it into a campaign rally, complete with chants of “four more years.”
And President Trump came out punching like a boxer entering the ring. His squad, some of whom he cited by name, offered full-throated support to a president awaiting a final vote on impeachment. His coalition was united and it eager to demonstrate its enthusiasm.
How did the Democrats show up? Fractured. It was a less unified response, which is understandable for a variety of reasons – it is primary season, the Iowa caucus apps broke, Democrats do not have the majority and the vitriol makes us all recoil.
Senators Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren were off in New Hampshire. Congressional surrogates joined them and presented it as a boycott of the President’s address. Many female Congresswomen who showed up wore white to the Capitol. Others Democrats walked out in the middle of Trump’s address. Speaker Pelosi, in her white suit, tore up the speech upon the President’s conclusion.
Bottom line: The Democrats did not present themselves as a cohesive coalition, even as Americans are watching them and considering what the next four years of leadership should look like.
President Trump’s speech outlined his accomplishments and objectives – sometimes in a narrative that his detractors might not be used to hearing. He spoke about providing a lifeline to historically black colleges, an initiative for trillion trees, scholarships for school choice and the positive implications of opportunity zones.
He also took advantage of the opportunity these speeches offer to honor invited guests. Tuesday’s address added the layer of awards and reunions – akin to a TV reality show at times – evoking emotion that tugged the heartstrings of many watching at home.
There was Sergeant Williams, reunited with his family after returning from Afghanistan. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido was lauded with praise and support. Trump pointed out the great-grandson of a Tuskagee airman, who is seeking to join the Space Force. And it would be impossible to ignore the fact Rush Limbaugh also received the Medal of Freedom. The guests filled the gallery with a diverse set of deeply relatable stories that touched on the core of emotions.
These are just samples of the over a dozen major issues in the speech – impacting many Americans and often speaking directly to Pennsylvania. I will admit there were moments when I found it hard to listen. Then I remembered the importance of this moment. I tried to pull back the emotion and understand what was really being said and what the implications could be. It reminded me that we cannot disengage even when the rhetoric becomes downright unbearable at times – from both sides.
So now what? I think Van Jones from CNN summed it up brilliantly. The last 24 hours were a wakeup call for Americans. This was a powerful speech, showing a Republican team and a president willing to do whatever it takes to win through myriad approaches. The Democrats need to seize this moment, learn from it and not miss a step from here until November to bring everyone inside their big tent.
Kate Wilhelm is the Chief Operating Officer in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia Office.