“You can’t put words in a president’s mouth.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve said that, mostly because I thought it was true. During my time as an Obama speechwriter, my goal was simple: Write something 90 percent as good as the president would if he had the time. I never tried to manipulate policy from behind the scenes. And if I had tried, it wouldn’t have worked. The president already knew what he stood for. Any speech-process power grab would have almost certainly altered my employment status. But our agenda would have remained unchanged.
I assumed this was true of all presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike. In my memoir, Thanks, Obama, I compared writing speeches to being a personal trainer rather than a puppet master. You can help a speaker present the most attractive version of themselves to the public. You can’t turn them into someone they’re not.
Like many statements I once made with certainly, it turns that one needs an asterisk: *With the giant, glaring exception of Donald Trump. If transcribed interviews are any guide, our 45th president’s natural speech pattern is a blend of vagaries and ramblings—a word salad a few weeks past its expiration date. That’s bad for America. But an incoherent president makes the speechwriting process a golden opportunity for a staffer hoping to put a finger on the scale.
Perhaps that’s why President Trump’s major addresses have such distinct personalities—personalities reminiscent of his top advisors. His “American Carnage” Inaugural Address was Steve Bannon through and through—a populist ode to the forgotten man, a poke in the eye of both parties establishment wings. Remarks at the Holocaust Memorial Museum were Javanka-esque, a series of high-minded pronouncements entirely divorced from the president’s past statements or current policy. Davos was a Gary Cohn job, of course—a cross between a formal address an earnings call.
Which bring us to the 2018 State of the Union. Last night’s big speech lacked Bannon’s grand vision of a partisan re-alignment, or Kushner’s attempt to make Trumpism safe for Harvard class reunions. Instead, it was a combination of raw resentment and entitlement, a mix of David Koch and David Duke. Sure, Donald Trump did the talking. But that was President Stephen Miller’s first State of the Union Address.
Let’s start with what wasn’t in the speech. A robust, publicly-financed infrastructure plan, which Bannon astutely recognized would present a political problem for Democrats and a major win for the president, was nowhere to be found. In its place was a privatization and money-shifting scheme, something designed to delight the Freedom Caucus rather than put Democrats on the spot.
The same was true of trade. Before the speech, there was speculation that Trump would demand renegotiation of specific agreements and or announce plans to rip them up. Instead, we got some standard-issue verbiage, something rhetorically tough but without any specifics. That doesn’t mean the president is suddenly a free-trader. But it does seem like the speechwriter found the subject kind of boring and moved on. Campaigning as a populist, Trump made trade a centerpiece of his agenda. Guiding the president last night, Miller largely ignored it.
The same can’t be said for tax cuts. It seems like eons ago, but President Trump once promised not to cut his own taxes. Republicans were worried he might not embrace the trickle-down economics at the party’s heart. No longer. Trump’s boasting about huge corporate rate cuts—and his insistence that a tax plan skewed toward the wealthy would benefit everyone—could have been cribbed straight from a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio address. Ditto his distaste for regulations. On economics, Trumpism has merged with the establishment GOP.
And on immigration, the establishment GOP has merged with Trump. It’s no surprise that the only section of the speech with an actual, fleshed-out policy position—four “pillars” for a proposed piece of legislation—was the one about Miller’s favorite subject. And where Trump had once promised to protect DREAMers, and go after the “bad hombres,” this plan was a white nationalist wish list. In exchange for giving 1.8 million people brought here as children a chance to become citizens, Trump’s proposed bill would slash legal immigration by 50 percent. That’s a position that would have been shockingly radical not so long ago—but Miller’s former bosses such as Michelle Bachman and Jeff Sessions would have been more than comfortable with it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Trump doesn’t like his own immigration proposal. It’s only been 20 days since he suggested we take Norwegians instead of people from Haiti, El Salvador, or Africa. And at one point during the speech, he said “immigrant” the way most people might say “roaches” or “rats.”
But the greatest power a speechwriter holds (even in more conventional presidencies) is the ability to emphasize. I doubt President Trump noticed that tax cuts and immigration dwarfed all other issues in his speech last night—but Congressional Republicans certainly will. Federal civil servants trying to turn rhetoric into policy will. And ultimately, American voters will, too.
Trump’s been so reliably chaotic—consistent in the way a tornado is consistent—that it’s hard to notice how dramatically he’s changed in just a year. Starting with birtherism and building from there, he began his political rise as an iconoclast, someone disdained not just by Democrats but by Republicans, too. But in a way, his speech last night was a major shift toward unity. He’s uniting the trickle-down and white nationalist impulses of the Republican Party with remarkable speed.
Who knows if this will be the dominant theme of the next week, let alone the next three years. But as the old Washington cliché goes, personnel is policy. And for now, in a pyrrhic victory for speechwriters everywhere, Stephen Miller is the person in charge.