By virtually any traditional measure — as well as a few nontraditional measures — President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) address was a great success. Let us count the ways.
The polls: A CBS poll released shortly after the speech reported that 75 percent of those watching approved of it, and 80 percent said the president was trying to unite the country. Importantly, two-thirds said the speech made them feel proud.
In a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 35 percent of those watching gave the president an “A” for his speech and 25 percent gave him a “B.” Only 26 percent gave him either a “D” or “F.”
Those numbers would be good for any president’s State of the Union address. But given Trump’s usually low approval ratings, that’s a very positive response.
The audience: The Nielsen Company reported that 45.6 million people watched the State of the Union message on TV. That was the sixth largest SOTU audience, a solid turnout, though not a record.
Of course, Nielsen’s numbers only reflected cable and broadcast TV networks. However, more and more people are bypassing TV and viewing such events online, so total viewership likely was much larger than the official number.
The tone: Trump appeared presidential in his demeanor, gracious to the opposition — supporting several policy initiatives that Democrats want — and he stayed on message. All three tasks can be challenging for this president. So when he achieves them, it’s a yuuge success.
Ironically, Trump’s presidential stature during the speech was magnified, rather than diminished, by the Democrats’ sour faces. It’s common for the opposition party to remain in their seats more and applaud less than the president’s party. But in this case, Democrats looked bitter and dejected — even when the president highlighted the achievement of widely shared goals such as low black and Hispanic unemployment rates.
The catchy phrases: State of the Union addresses seldom rise to the level of high oratory. The speeches are more notable for a few catchy phrases that stick in people’s minds, and Trump’s was no exception.
One of Trump’s best was the comment that “Americans are dreamers, too,” which took a potent political issue — illegal aliens brought to the U.S. as children, referred to as “Dreamers” — and turned the notion on its head, making it apply to American citizens who also dream of achieving their goals
The human connection: Since Ronald Reagan’s 1982 address, SOTU speeches have increasingly put a human face on political and policy issues.
Trump drew attention to several people sitting in the gallery, including a young man who put flags on veterans’ graves, two families whose daughters were killed by gang members and a North Korean who escaped to freedom.
Every president incorporates the practice in their SOTU address these days, but none more effectively than Trump.
The wins: With 45 million-plus people watching, State of the Union addresses provide a platform for a president to tout his successes. Trump had a number of them, especially with respect to the economy, and he wasn’t bashful about sharing them.
But the successes have to be experienced to be effective. President Barack Obama used to boast about economic recovery and the benefits of his health care law, but those claims just didn’t ring true for millions of Americans.
By contrast, Trump’s claim of a surging economy is reflected in news headlines and growing public optimism — and completely believable.
The State of the Union has become a political showcase, where Americans who seldom pay much attention to politics can hear the president make the best case he — and eventually she — can for the country and his policies.
If the public comes away from that address informed, encouraged and proud, it was a successful speech. The polls show Donald Trump did exactly that.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation. He holds a doctorate in the humanities from the University of Texas. Readers may write him at IPI, Suite 820, 1320 Greenway Drive, Irving, TX, 75038 Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.