In 1954, four years after it was created by an American electrical engineer called Hubert Schlafly, Dwight Eisenshower became the first US president to make use of a teleprompter for a State of the Union address.
Since then, just about everyone who followed has done the same, and some with more grace than others. Barack Obama made it look utterly natural, whereas the pauses in George W Bush’s sometimes faltering delivery could make people anxious. Only Richard Nixon had no use for the device.
By now, we know Donald Trump can read from a teleprompter. And sometimes he can speak with passion and energy – a far better orator than his critics would concede.
His second address to the joint houses of Congress, and his first State of the Union, was certainly one of Trump’s better speeches yet. For one hour and twenty minutes – records show it was one of the longest – he spoke with flair and confidence, earning himself many more standing ovations than hisses and boos.
And he had some good lines, too. This was not the grey, America First brutality put together by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller for Trump’s inauguration address that made everyone other than his hardcore supporters wince and worry.
“We want every American to know the dignity of a hard day’s work; we want every child to be safe in their home at night, and we want every citizen to be proud of this land that we love,” he said at one point.
And those fearful of Trump’s inclination to withdraw America from the world stage, may have taken heart when he declared: “As we rebuild America’s strength and confidence at home, we are also restoring our strength and standing abroad.”
But making a speech, and even sounding and looking presidential, is not enough. After a first year in office in which the world has watched as Trump has insulted allies, behaved like a petulant teenager, indulged in racist rhetoric and dog whistle politics, the bar has been set so low that everyone is ready to get excited when he sticks to the script. Blue silk tie? Tick. Expensive-looking suit? Tick. A teleprompter that is switched on? Tick.
Earlier the month, as Trump’s speech writers were tidying up those lines about struggling communities being helped by immigration policies “that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families”, he was playing politics with the lives and futures of 700,000 young people known as the Dreamers, permitted to remain in the US under an emergency order introduced by Obama.
Trump has taunted, teased and used those young people as pawns. Eventually, the White House has said he supports a path for citizenship for them, but only if he received $25bn for the border wall with Mexico.
Likewise, Trump was able to brag about three million US workers getting bonuses, but that came at the expense of one of the biggest corporate tax giveaways in history. Even many Republicans admit they cannot see how the federal government can now balance the books.
Trump can talk about investing in infrastructure – he said he wanted $1.5 trillion for a “safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure” – but he has repeatedly refused to work with Democrats to build consensus on projects that would benefit everyone.
From the perspective of Republicans, Trump’s first year in office was rather positive. Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court, a version of the travel ban was enacted and he eventually signed into law the tax cuts that Paul Ryan and others had been slathering over.
Yet, so much of what he did infuriated and angered people. He currently has an approval rating of around 38 per cent – a record low. In a country that was created from immigrants, many Americans cannot understand how he has done so little to build bridges and done so much to create antagonism.
There was very little to assuage those people on Tuesday night.
This year, a year in which the President and the Republicans face the test of midterm elections, Trump must be judged by his actions and deeds, rather than his words or manner. We know he can sometimes sound presidential. We know he can please his base.
He has yet to prove that he can can be the president of all Americans.
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