Trump Phones It In

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump didn’t have much to work with in his Oval Office address Tuesday night. He’s the least popular president through 719 days of any of his predecessors during the polling era — and he’s pushing something, a border wall, that polls say is even less popular than he is. He’s asking for money to pay for the wall, even though he campaigned on the fantasy that Mexico would pay for it. And he’s shut down the government to try to force Congress to vote for his wall and is now trying to blame lawmakers for the shutdown.

Then there’s his performance in the speech. Not only has Trump never done the practice to master the art (and as James Fallows reminds us, it is an art) of reading from a teleprompter, but he remains astonishingly bad at reading that specialized type of verbiage that politicians so often must handle: speechwriter prose. Trump’s voice fails to rise when the words demand it; he doesn’t insert dramatic pauses, and can’t seem to revel in the pageantry of the frills that speechwriters love to insert into the text.

So the president managed to simultaneously rush through it, to seem low-energy, and to, as E.J. Graff put it, appear to be “to be drugged to keep him on point.” 

It’s true that these presidential addresses are overhyped, and don’t really have much potential to change public opinion even when done well. In any case, to the extent a prime-time speech can do the president some good, this one surely won’t.

What’s most striking is how much Trump sabotages his own presidency — and the hopes of his supporters — by just refusing to do the basic prep work. Watch George W. Bush in 2001 and then again in 2004: He went from awful at the teleprompter to being a total pro. Bill Clinton could deliver a teleprompter speech and make it seem like he was speaking off the cuff. Ronald Reagan could make speechwriters’ prose soar, turning words that might have been lame cliches in the voice of a lesser talent into memorable moments. And even George H.W. Bush, hardly a natural, managed to learn how to be acceptable at it after a while. The point is that none of this really comes naturally. And Trump just isn’t willing to work at it. Just as he isn’t willing to do the hard work of learning about policy, or how the government works, or any of the things it takes to be an adequate president.

Fact-checking him this time is hardly worth the trouble; by the end of the short speech, I felt like I was one of few Americans left watching Trump force himself to finish something he seemed to lack any interest in at all. Meanwhile, the shutdown goes on, Trump’s approval ratings have been falling, and nothing happened Tuesday night to ease the pressure on Republicans in Congress to bail on the president and try to end this thing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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