For Americans of a mature age, the image of the president of the United States addressing the nation on prime-time TV from behind his desk in the Oval Office brings back solemn memories of important moments in recent history. That’s where George W. Bush announced his and the government’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks. It’s where Ronald Reagan made the pitch for his ambitious and radical economic agenda. Going back further, it’s where Richard Nixon told the nation he was resigning (just as Gerald Ford used the venue to announce Nixon’s pardon); where his predecessor Lyndon Johnson disclosed he was abandoning his 1968 reelection campaign; and where his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, tried to calm a fearful people during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eisenhower chose this medium to announce his dispatch of federal troops to integrate schools in Little Rock, and Truman began the whole tradition with an Oval Office address explaining his decision to intervene militarily in Korea.
It’s quite a tradition.
The Oval Office address device has been in declining use recently, in part because Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were uncomfortable with the format, and in part because venues connected with the news the president was conveying became easier and more effective to utilize (think of W.’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier where he had personally landed a jet). While President Trump has used the Oval Office for photo ops and other brief ceremonies, his habit is to make speeches elsewhere, from his far-flung rallies to alternative White House settings like the Diplomatic Reception Room and the East Room.
So it’s noteworthy that the 45th president will make his first prime-time Oval Office address to the nation tonight to convince a skeptical public that the border “crisis” he keeps talking about requires a border wall, which in turn merits a fight with Congress worth shutting down a big portion of the federal government to win. It’s likely that he’s choosing this medium in an effort to lend some gravitas to what many consider a foolish personal obsession that is a greater threat to national well-being than anything happening on the border.
It’s possible that Trump will accompany whatever fantasy he chooses to present about rampaging criminals pouring across the U.S.–Mexico border with a national emergency declaration, to be followed by an effort to redirect Pentagon funds to his border-wall project. That would presumably enable him to call off the government shutdown as no longer necessary for purposes of funding the wall. Or he may hold that “idea” in reserve, while forcing the Democratic congressional leaders who will respond to Trump’s address to decide whether to go down that particularly complicated rabbit hole without knowing whether he’s really prepared to use it.
But in any event, Trump is going to use up one of his office’s best attention-grabbing vehicles tonight — all the more precious because it’s so rarely utilized these days. If he just gives a standard rally-style speech on the “border crisis” that he’s been largely fabricating since before his election as president, it may excite his “base” and pave the way for an emergency declaration that could get him out of his self-imposed government shutdown trap. But it’s not likely to change many minds, particularly among those who remember Oval Office addresses as occasions for big news and frank talk.