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Trump's speech to Congress was more Ronald than Donald - but his positive messaging won't last


President Donald Trump, right, meets with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Monday. Photo: AP

President Donald Trump, right, meets with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Monday. Photo: AP


President Donald Trump, right, meets with leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Monday. Photo: AP

Donald Trump hit the reset button on his presidency this week. It wasn't complicated.

The do-over involved an even-tempered speech to Congress, a clever Oval Office photograph, and a promised careful rephrasing of his executive order on immigration.

The Republican president didn't abandon his agenda or cast aside campaign promises. But, for the first time, Mr Trump communicated his goals in a relatively sober and reasonable manner.

During Tuesday's first address to Congress, he replaced blunt slogans with the rhetoric beloved of US presidents. His calls for the "renewal of the American spirit" and a "new chapter in American greatness" were decidedly more Ronald than Donald. When he addressed a tearful Carryn Owens, wife of the Navy Seal killed in a US raid in Yemen, Mr Trump slipped briefly into his commander-in-chief mode. Looking up at her in the gallery, he described her husband Ryan as "a warrior and a hero". That's more like it, Mr President.

Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer gushed that it was the "best speech of Trump's career". Similarly, Chris Wallace from Fox News opined that "I feel like, tonight, Donald Trump became the President of the United States". Did it truly signal a new beginning, or was "reasonable" Donald Trump just a blip?

Critics argue the softened tone was nothing more than pragmatic politics. To move his agenda forward, Mr Trump needs every last Republican vote; but GOP stalwarts like Senator John McCain have been busy dusting off their maverick credentials. Sceptics say Mr Trump is cycling through a period of normal behaviour before his next big blowout. Or could it be that the kinder, gentler Mr Trump is a reaction to slumping approval ratings?

The truth is probably a combination of factors, but Mr Trump's best week demonstrated the power of good communications.

A teacher once told me that to fully read a photograph, you should look at it for an hour. This week's clever picture of Kellyanne Conway - casually kneeling on an Oval Office couch as she snapped a mobile phone picture of Mr Trump meeting with a group of African Americans - contained several well-crafted messages.

Far from being in the woodshed over careless television appearances, the counselor to the president has clearly retained her access-all-areas pass. Ms Conway's pose telegraphed a relaxed atmosphere in the Oval Office - a counterpoint to daily reports of infighting and disarray. The large number of African Americans gathered around the president showed an inclusive White House, and women at the back of the group seemed to be saying "we stand behind this president".

But one week of positive messaging won't change Mr Trump's fortunes. He now faces the tricky business of convincing both the public and Congress to pay for his promised tax cuts, improved health care and a massive border wall. In the midst of a bitter war between the president and the press, such juggling will be near impossible.

Mr Trump's habit of attacking the media, while simultaneously using them, dates back decades. As a trainee radio reporter in Massachusetts, I recall the media feeding frenzy over Mr Trump's marital problems. I remember padding local news bulletins with breathless updates on Mr Trump's split-up and resultant financial battles with his first wife Ivana. Even then, Mr Trump railed about fake news and tried to control what was published.

Bad blood between American presidents and the press is nothing new. Every administration tries to sidestep the media. In 1992, Bill Clinton infuriated reporters by limiting access to his press secretary. He later reversed this, but the die was cast and the Washington press pursued Mr Clinton's personal weaknesses with vigour. In the 1970s, Republican Richard Nixon kept an "enemies list" of journalists he didn't trust, and then ended up resigning from the presidency after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story.

Targeting of individual journalists or organisations is also par for the course. Helen Thomas, former dean of the press corps, told me how the second Bush administration labelled her a terrorist and supporter of Hamas. In 2004, I myself got a telling-off from the White House for interrupting George W Bush during a testy interview on foreign policy.

Nor is Mr Trump the first to use technology to bypass the press. There was no tweeting in the 1940s, but Franklin D Roosevelt conducted fireside radio chats to deliver unfiltered political messages. And John F Kennedy first brought live television into the White House to speak directly to Americans.

Barack Obama favoured long interviews to explain complex policies ignored by the media. Mr Obama also irritated the press corps by taking questions from alternative media outlets and bloggers but, unlike Mr Trump, he didn't seek to denigrate traditional media. Like most of his predecessors, Mr Obama recognised the mutual dependency between president and press.

Mr Trump has upended this mutual dependence, and the results are not pretty. On any given day, most of Mr Trump's coverage is negative. The relentless focus on his administration's ties with Russia, as well as Attorney General Jeff Sessions's latest contributory role, show that journalists are determined not to be bullied. Even George W Bush proclaimed this week the media is "indispensable to democracy".

The 'Columbia Journalism Review' says Mr Trump's description of the press as the "enemy of the people" should be a call to reporters to get out of the briefing room and return to cultivating sources and investigative reporting.

America's new president and his most senior adviser, Steve Bannon, believe the "globalist, corporatist media" are out to impede Mr Trump's plan. They both correctly note that the mainstream media backed Hillary Clinton. But they ignore the fact the same media demonised Mrs Clinton for years, making her one of the country's most polarising figures.

Successful presidencies depend on good communications. Ronald Reagan perfected the art of messaging and image-making, earning him the "great communicator" moniker. To deliver his message, Mr Clinton needed 30 communications staff, George W Bush 50, and Barack Obama 70. Mr Trump, Mr Bannon and Ms Conway have been trying to do it all by themselves. For America's sake, it may be time for the president and press to reach an accommodation.

Irish Independent