President Trump speaks during Tuesday night’s address to a joint session of Congress as Vice President Pence, left, and House Speaker Paul Ryan look on. NBC News screen shot
After President Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, talk of a “pivot” was once again in press rotation. After months of watching for a transformation from candidate Trump that would quell concerns that his ribald campaign-trail persona would carry over into the Oval Office, several outlets and pundits, including those from the “mainstream media” so frequently derided by the administration, decided that Trump finally showed he could convincingly play the part of the nation’s top statesman. At least for a beat or two.
Early on Wednesday, not long after Trump’s moment on Capitol Hill, the Associated Press was quick out of the gates with both the declaration that a “pivot” had, in fact, occurred, and the use of another term that made its way into many other sources’ appraisals: “presidential.” “Donald Trump finally gave Republicans what they’ve spent months begging him to deliver: a pivot to presidential,” the AP’s Lisa Lerer announced before issuing a caveat: “The question now is how long it lasts. Days, weeks, months—or simply until the next tweet?”
So far, this has been Trump’s post-address activity on Twitter, so Lerer will have to keep on the lookout:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2017
— President Trump (@POTUS) March 1, 2017
Over on CNN, both Van Jones and Anderson Cooper singled out as “extraordinary” the moment in Trump’s speech in which he saluted fallen Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, who was killed in a recent mission in Yemen, as well as Owens’ wife Carryn, who had joined the audience in the Capitol for the occasion:
Less than an hour after Trump honored the widow of a slain NAVY Seal, the Democratic commentator suggested that the commander in chief had officially begun to look the part.
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) March 1, 2017
… “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics,” Jones added.
(Other news sources, including this one, pointed out that Ryan Owens’ father feels differently about tributes to his son from the White House.)
Chris Wallace at Fox News was a less unexpected voice in that chorus, offering essentially the same take as Jones’ about the evening’s proceedings. “I feel like, tonight, Donald Trump became the President of the United States,” Wallace said.
need new cliches pic.twitter.com/iVqUSeeKGn
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) March 1, 2017
The Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief Philip Rucker also registered a sea change:
This is the best morning of Donald Trump's presidency. He is basking in positive pundit reviews. All that tumult feels like yesteryear.
— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) March 1, 2017
But upon closer inspection, the party doing much of the pivoting may have been the pundits themselves.
It might be argued that the mainstream outlets that weighed Trump’s performance favorably were pushing back against accusations—not a few of which have come from Trump’s administration—of bias against the president with a conspicuous show of “objectivity.” It might also be possible that Cooper and his cohorts set out to give credit where credit was due (Michael Moore clearly thought otherwise of CNN’s collective take), but in so doing, they would be overlooking the fact that nothing, beyond the symbolic level, actually happened last night.
This makes Trump’s presidential pivot a “media event,” a non-event by any other standard than media hype that is framed and reported on as though it were a naturally occurring and impactful event. Compounding the issue is the fact that some media events end up having real-world consequences because they sway public opinion and affect, for example, voting outcomes.
In some respects, what he said in that boilerplate hourlong address wasn’t as remarkable as what he didn’t say—no calls to lock up Hillary Clinton, optimistic tones subbed in for bombast. It wasn’t lost on The New Yorker’s John Cassidy that “details of how he would bring about his ambitious goals were lacking,” as were mentions of Russia, climate change or who would pick up the bill for Trump’s proposals, “But rhetoric wasn’t.”
Ultimately, President Trump gave a speech on Tuesday night, full stop. What he goes on to do with that talk in coming months is where the real action, and cause for critical evaluation, actually lies.