Implicit in President Trump's decision to give restrained, stick-to-the-script performances on select occasions is the admission there is a time and a place for less restrained performances. That seems obvious — former President Barack Obama didn't sing or call Kanye West a "jackass" during any of his State of the Union addresses — but it's an interesting acknowledgment from Trump, who uses the presidential Twitter account to dole out demeaning (though often hilarious) nicknames to detractors, tweet in all capital letters with reckless abandon, lob personal attacks at television hosts, and refer to Kim Jong Un as "Little Rocket Man." And that's just on social media.
Trump's advisors constantly defend such conduct by arguing the country elected him to be a fighter, to break the chains of decorum and political correctness and lead with a refreshing sense of authenticity. It's no big deal, in other words.
But then why not make his State of the Union address feel more like one of his rallies? If that's what voters want from Trump, it's curious to see how he chooses to temper that energy on certain occasions.
This isn't to say the aforementioned defenses of his unorthodox behavior have no merit, only to question whether the underlying strategy is still half-baked.
When we see flashes of more traditional presidential behavior from Trump, they are usually well-received. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly told voters to expect him to evolve once in office. "I will be so presidential, you will be so bored. You'll say, 'Can't he have a little more energy?'" Trump quipped on the "Today" show back in 2016. Presumably, then, Trump recognizes the public appeal of so-called presidential behavior.
In a post-State of the Union analysis for Politico, John Harris and Matthew Nussbaum wrote:
The political reality is that the vision of Trump and Trumpism on display in the State of the Union is not one voters see more than occasionally. If it were the norm, rather than the exception, it is hard to imagine Republicans losing big in Virginia and Alabama as they did in November, or that Trump’s average approval rating would be 40.1 percent, or that that many of the same Republicans who were clapping along in the House chamber would be privately saying they pray Trump is somehow not again on the ballot of 2020.
It seems the benefits of Trump regularly throwing red meat to his small but steady base of hardcore supporters don't outweigh the credibility that costs him with other voters.
Then again, the media has clearly already made up its mind when it comes to him, so perhaps Trump figures it's best to speak mostly to his base and bait the press into discrediting itself. If that were the case, however, why bother going for broader appeal at all?
Perhaps there's no strategy — there's only a president who loves to tweet, and a White House staff that would prefer he engage in "presidential" behavior. At any given moment, we're really just seeing who won the battle of the day. Or maybe we're only one year into the presidency of a nontraditional politician who craves mass appeal and is still determining how best to earn it.