It is a sign of desperation that three weeks into a government shutdown, a White House that can read polls and a president who prides himself on doing things differently from his predecessors were willing to use a traditional prime-time address to the nation in an attempt to change minds about that shutdown. They did so because the polls before the speech were all bad and President Trump’s unorthodox approach was largely to blame.
For the first time, he tried to wrap himself in one of the sturdiest traditions of the presidency, delivering his message from the Oval Office, using his clout to force the major broadcast networks and the cable news channels to give him the unfiltered chance to make his case. Americans expecting to see new episodes of an Ellen DeGeneres game show on NBC, Black-ish on ABC, or FBI on CBS instead got a rerun of Donald Trump. There was nothing fresh about his argument and little to suggest a president who prefers bluster to persuasion has found a way to change minds.
He went into the speech with the Republican base securely with him, agreeing that there is a national security crisis at the southern border and enthusiastically behind his drive to build the border wall that was a signature promise in his 2016 campaign. His problem was that the majority of the country not in his base is against both his assessment of the situation on the border and his proposed solution. Based on the latest Morning Consult/Politico survey, 83 percent of Republicans support the wall while only 44 percent of the broader public does. A plurality of Americans—47 percent—oppose the wall, including 80 percent of Democrats. Similarly, 72 percent of Republicans see a crisis at the border, while only 19 percent of Democrats agree.
Trump needed the speech to change minds and win over those not already marching in the Trump Army. He needed to give reasons to Democrats and, especially, to independents who, according to the Morning Consult poll, by two-thirds see no crisis and oppose the wall. Yet the only thing new that he offered them was a rare attempt at Trumpian empathy. He had his usual recitation of the beheadings, stabbings, and shootings he blames on illegal immigrants. This time, though, he added to that an earnest and personal recollection of meeting the families of the victims, recounting that “I’ve held the hands of weeping mothers.” He added, “I will never forget the pain in their eyes.”
He also offered a rhetorical nod to the plight of immigrant children stranded at the border. But he had little beyond familiar rhetoric to change minds and achieve his stated goal of getting every citizen to “call Congress” and urge them to support him. Instead, he repeated his standard insistence that his opponents don’t want border security, and he placed the blame for the shutdown on their shoulders.
In that regard, an Oval Office address by this president is, indeed, different from those given by his predecessors. They saw the speeches as a way to unite the country, knitting together disparate strains of opinion so perceived threats could be confronted. Trump nodded toward unity, but offered little for those who began the day disagreeing with him. This was a speech for the base, which didn’t need convincing. All but ignored was the majority, which did need persuading.
In another break from past presidents, Trump made little effort to reassure Americans concerned about the future. “There are numerous examples of presidential addresses made to calm a frightened public,” tweeted veteran Republican strategist Stuart Stevens. “This will be the first to frighten a calm public.” Certainly, it was not enough to calm those hoping for an end to what threatens to be the longest government shutdown in history.