The Art of the Comeback

Can President Donald J. Trump reset his presidency? History shows us it can be done and it has as much to do with style as it does substance.

“MR. PRESIDENT, WE ARE READY TO EAT CROW WHENEVER YOU WANT TO SERVE IT,” read a large banner hanging on the Washington Post Building. It was 1948, and Harry S. Truman had achieved the seemingly impossible. The incumbent president was able to turn an almost certain defeat to Governor Thomas E. Dewey, into a spectacular victory.  Truman’s adept turnaround came on the wheels of his famous whistle-stop campaign during which he gave 352 campaign speeches from a platform built onto the back carriage of a train dubbed the “Magellan”.

Truman aboard the ‘Magellan’

President Donald J. Trump is often compared to Andrew Jackson, the first ‘populist’ American president, but number 45 also has a lot in common with number 33, Harry Truman. Aside from sharing the first four letters of a name, they both won their election because of their appeal to the average men and women in the middle of the country and they both did so in unprecedented upsets the media failed to foresee.

Three years before his 1948 campaign, then Vice President Truman assumed the presidency after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When he found out Roosevelt had died, he asked his widow Eleanore, “Is there anything I can do for you?” To which she responded “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now!”

Truman and the country were in fact in trouble, but he got America out of it. He ended the second World War by dropping  nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and announced the surrender of Japan and Germany. After the war, he created the $13 Billion Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and introduced the Truman Doctrine to fight Communism.

Despite the military success, Truman’s toughest battle came as he sought re-election in 1948. Even though he held the office, he had never run for the job. He was severely down in the polls and much of it was due to his style, not his substance. His ability to deliver a good stump speech was stymied by an unconventional tonal delivery that often emphasized the wrong words in a sentence. When he went off the cuff, it was not a successful endeavor.

Dewey Defeats Truman Newspaper
President Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring his defeat to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election, St Louis, Missouri, November 1948.

Truman’s political advisers knew if he had any chance of victory,  he needed to sharpen his oratory skills.  That’s why Truman undertook his whistle-stop campaign aboard the Magellan. To be sure, Truman still maintained his folksy identity, even appearing at the back of his train wearing pajamas and a bathrobe, but he also learnt a skill-set which drove him to success at the polls.

Last night, as I was watching President Donald J. Trump deliver his speech to Congress, it struck me that we are witnessing a Truman-like evolution in our new President. Pundits and commentators on cable news looked visibly relieved at the transformation. Today’s 300 point rally at the stock exchange shows the business community also exhaled. Trump’s opponents should also be worried, as he acquires a new communication strategy under a brand new communications director, which also includes a lot less tweeting and a muted Kellyanne Conway, they will lose their ability to take shots at what has easily been his Achilles heal.

Say what you will about President Trump, but his ability to learn from his errors and adjust to the realities of his circumstance, is the stuff of legend. Trump even wrote a book about it. In “The Art of the Comeback”, he describes how he maneuvered his way out of multiple bankruptcies and overcame adversity in general. It highlighted his ability to learn quickly and adjust to almost any circumstance.

Granted, this was just one speech and we are yet to see if this new and improved Trump remains or is just a well-orchestrated mirage. Judging from his business history, I’d bet on the former. Trump could also borrow from Truman and launch his own whistle-stop train trip as he pushes this rebranding.

Style alone will not reboot the presidency, substantial action will be needed and last night’s speech was more than just a signal that Donald J. Trump can give a good speech. It highlighted his openness to listen to his advisers and build consensus. The president outlined an expensive list of initiatives in his speech which are largely un-Republican like immigration reform which could include so-called “dreamers” and broad affordable health care. This illustrates Trump wants to rule in a non-ideological way which could win him favor among a broad electorate. This should alarm Democrats, who have lost their connection to a large segment of the worker vote which used to be a part of their core base.

We’re just a few weeks into the Trump presidency, and his visible adjustment to what has been lackluster start, reveals he is far more self-aware than his critics would like him to be. It may be too soon to add crow to the menu at next year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner but it certainly seems like something fundamental has shifted, and President Donald J. Trump could be on the verge of another comeback.

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