A President Finds His Voice

Creative Commons photo by Colin Harris

In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in American history at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, a most remarkable thing happened.

President Donald Trump found his voice.

His tone was somber and serious and, it hit the right tone and was, in the words of CNN Senior Political Analyst John King, “pitch perfect.” Yes, the comments were composed by a speechwriter and were delivered via teleprompter, but before we get too critical of him not speaking from the heart, we should remember Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush both used prepared remarks when they responded to vicious attacks upon Americans.

Since the backlash after his response to the protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, one might wonder what influence former Marine Corps General and current Chief of Staff John Kelly is having on reigning in the chaos that has become the Trump administration’s hallmark.

The biggest obstacle for Donald Trump to be seen as a successful president outside his own conservative base is that he needs stop being candidate Trump and start being President Trump.

When people run for president of the United States, one often finds a narrative woven by campaign strategists that he or she is “just like you or me”. We are fed a steady stream of pictures of candidates kissing babies and sitting down with average Americans to listen to their problems like they were sharing a meal at a local restaurant.

In the modern era, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican Chris Christie have been very good at the town hall exchange (though they had much different levels of success at the ballot box and flaws of their own with the Lewinsky affair for Clinton and “Bridgegate” for Christie).

We love those authentic moments when the men and women running for president get down to our level and talk to us like we are real people. But for every time Bill Clinton played the saxophone or showed how he cared about you and me, we have George H.W. Bush and the (then) next-gen supermarket scanner and Barack Obama and his “arugula” comment about food prices, both of were cast as mistakes by candidates out-of-touch with the American people.

Even if the events are gaffe-free, they still can devolve into stilted photo ops, like Obama’s Beer Summit with Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the Cambridge, Mass. police officer who mistakenly arrested him for trespassing on his own property.

Since 2015, American and international press outlets have spoken to their concerns that Trump supporters are ill-educated Americans voting out of fear rather than wisdom. And for some that may be true, but such is the case in any election. We can debate the merits and detractors of the Electoral College until we are purple in the face (I could say “red” or “blue”, but I would hate to be accused of political partisanship).

For Trump to continue to rise to the office of the presidency, it would behoove him to hand over his Twitter account like he has his car keys. While the good cop/bad cop routine with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on North Korea might be effective in containing Kim Jong-Un, the hue and cry arising from his comments on Puerto Rico is clear evidence that a new strategy is necessary.

If we could mix and match the best qualities of our presidents to form the ideal occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania, we would probably seek the strength of Teddy Roosevelt or FDR, the steely optimism of Abraham Lincoln, the eloquence of JFK or Ronald Reagan and the compassion of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.

Presidents have a tradition of writing letters to the next occupant of the office and, in Barack Obama’s letter to Trump are words he should take into consideration as he continues to grow in his role as leader of the American people.

“It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend… [W]e are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.

For, if he ignores such counsel, he likely will find himself compared, not with Lincoln, but with his predecessor, James Buchanan.

And that’s definitely not good company to be in.

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