A Presidential Speech Can Go a Long Way—Even by a Beleaguered President | Opinion

America is in the throes of triple crises – a once in a century pandemic, an economic downturn rivaling the Great Depression, and social unrest in cities across the country. It is hard to think of a time when America faced more uncertainty about its economic and social well-being.

Since World War II, American presidents have spoken to the country in time of crisis or uncertainty. The president is the only person elected by everyone, and his words have been looked to by Americans as a roadmap for hope to navigate future challenges. Thus far, President Trump has been dissuaded by his clueless political advisers from giving a nationwide address because, according to reporting, he has no new policy proposals to offer. Americans do not expect policy proposals in these times. They do expect their chief executive to understand their dissatisfaction and offer a confident message that the country will get through the difficult times. It's a message of hope, not legislative proposals, that Americans are looking for. History tells us that such speechmaking can help calm the country, but can also be beneficial to the president.

The President is reportedly again considering a national address. A successful address would borrow key elements from past presidents that emphasize understanding and empathy, hope, trust, and confidence about the future.

Franklin Roosevelt began the modern role of presidential "comforter in chief" with his fireside chats in the dark days of the Great Depression and then World War II. In a Fireside Chat on April 28, 1042, the president asked for sacrifice but expressed his confidence in the American people:

"[Pearl Harbor} found the American people spiritually prepared for war....We know what we are fighting for...Here at home, everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary, not only to supply our fighting men, but to keep the economic structure of our country fortified and secure..."

President Ronald Reagan extended Roosevelt's messages to the television age. He spoke numerous times from the Oval Office at times of great challenges. On January 28, 1986, he spoke to the nation on the disaster of the Space Shuttle Challenger with a bow to American greatness and his classic optimism:

"[The astronauts] had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths...They served all of us...I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

In addition to providing hope to Americans in difficult days, these speeches can have a positive impact on presidential standing. These are times that can demonstrate presidential leadership, by far and away the most important characteristic that correlates with presidential success. Bill Clinton's words about Oklahoma City was the catalyst that began his presidential comeback from losing both houses of Congress in 1994 to successful reelection in 1996. As Clinton noted:

"This terrible sin took the lives of our American family, innocent children in that building...citizens in the building going about their daily business, and many there who served the rest of us...The hurt you feel must not be allowed to turn to hate, but instead into the search for justice...And you have certainly not lost America, for we will stand with you for as many tomorrows as it takes."

Presidential speeches can also enhance qualities of presidential trust and ultimate success. George W Bush's remarks enhanced his image of trustworthiness in his response to 9/11. As Bush noted:

"A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve."

President Barack Obama's words after shootings in Newton, Connecticut underlined his appreciation of America's pain and the country's belief that he "understood people like me," his main strength during two successful national political campaigns. As Obama noted:

"So our hearts are broken today –for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain."

A successful presidential speech is one that addresses the country's difficulties, acknowledges the problems to be overcome, and assures the country that the future will be better. This is a tall order in these hyper political times, but such an effort could represent a small first step in the healing that cannot begin too soon.

Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​