Moments after Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and CNN commentator Van Jones, a Democrat, both declared the speech as “presidential.” If the dictionary definition of presidential as “having a bearing or demeanor befitting a president; dignified and confident” is true, then I find nothing presidential about Donald Trump’s speech or his presidency. Dignity is not the word that first comes to mind when describing Donald Trump. Speaking in a normal human tone and asserting normal human platitudes is not enough to clear the bar on being presidential.
Can a speech to Congress be an etch-a-sketch, erasing assault on the freedom of press, the incoherent personal attacks on Twitter and the streak of almost daily falsehoods and outright lies? The American public is forgiving but I hope not forgetful. We are willing to give someone chance to start anew but not foolish into believing that a thin skinned man can really pivot. Based on CNN’s (an outlet that Trump calls “fake news”) post-speech poll, the public did seem to appreciate the President’s tone of normalcy but that appreciation cannot mask the incivility of the content.
Let’s start at the very beginning. While Trump admirably names the victims of a recent spate of anti-Semitic violence, he does not acknowledge the identity of the victim in the Kansas City shooting, where an Indian immigrant was shot dead by a person allegedly screaming “get out of my country.” Trump also failed to mention the dramatic increases in hate crimes against Muslim Americans and their houses of worship. That’s not presidential. It’s political. To Trump, Muslims are invisible except as terrorists. He again used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” despite warnings from his new National Security Advisor that the term is counterproductive.
The announcement of a new office called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) inside the Department of Homeland Security, appeared to be a ploy to stigmatize immigrants. Security should about the nature of the crime not the status of the criminal. Singling out immigrants while obfuscating the numerous hate crimes committed by native born Americans, mostly White, is a form of demonization that led to the Kansas shooting in the first place. Given that immigrants, including undocumented ones, commit fewer crimes than native born Americans, once again Trump engaged in demagoguery, albeit in a softer tone, not presidential statesmanship.
In his speech Trump paid tribute William “Ryan” Owen as a hero who died, “battling against terrorism and securing our nation.” The presence of Owen’s widow Carryn Owen at the event was poignant but that did not detract from the fact that Owen’s father has asked for a full investigation into his son’s death. The long tribute to Owen, while heartfelt, also trivializes the fact that Trump ordered this mission while reportedly at his dinner table and till date has blamed everyone but himself for the botched mission. One of the most heartbreaking moments of the evening looked crass when placed in its broader context. It exploited a widow’s grief and did little to heal a father’s agony.
Finally, a Presidential address to Congress is an important agenda setting event. Platitudes and lofty rhetoric are fine interludes but the main performance needs substance. In 2009, when former President Barrack Obama addressed Congress for the first time, the nation was in the midst of a severe recession not enjoying the relative prosperity of today. In his speech, Obama celebrated the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and provided details on how that law was designed to pull us out of the once-in-a-generation economic crisis. He spoke about specific targets his budget wanted to achieve with pay increases for those who serve and expanded benefits for our veterans.
Presidential leadership is not easy. Not everyone elected to that office automatically gets it. They have to earn it via the resolve of their character and the moral clarity of their voice. Unfortunately, Trump falls short not just in the hour long speech but thus far in his nascent presidency. We believe in America’s values and its promise. Mr. President, do you?