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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Trump’s phony ‘theme weeks’

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President Donald Trump tries on a Stetson hat, as Dustin Noblitt, with Stetson Hats, smiles, during a “Made in America,” product showcase. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump’s is pulling out all the stops — and props — to try to shift the subject to more positive messages.

Trump posed in a fire truck, waved a custom baseball bat and donned a white Stetson at the kickoff of a weeklong focus on American-produced goods. But the painstakingly arranged “Made in America” theme was almost immediately drowned out by news of the imploding health care legislation in the Senate.

It’s not the first time Trump’s team has adopted a weekly theme in hopes of managing its message and shifting attention away from the ongoing Russia investigation and the struggles to repeal the Obama health care law.

But while this week has offered the White House’s most creative use of visual aids, it may be headed for the same fate as past themed efforts, which often couldn’t compete with a rapid-fire news cycle and Trump’s own talents for distraction.

“This White House has two things going against it,” said Republican consultant Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential bid. “One is they’re trying to talk about theme weeks in the middle of a very crowded news cycle. And two it would appear not everyone got the memo on what the theme is going to be.”

True to form, Trump himself strayed from the message even before the first “Made in America” event on Monday, defending his son Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter amid questions about a meeting Trump’s eldest son had with a Russian lawyer during last year’s presidential campaign.

On Tuesday, Trump dove into the health care debate, proclaiming himself “disappointed” with the stalled repeal effort in the Senate and insisting that he may “let Obamacare fail.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer called “Made in America” week a success, saying that the administration had received strong response in local media and online. He also said that the White House can focus on a theme while still working on issues such as health care, noting that “we can walk and chew gum.”

“We have a great story to tell on Made in America. We’ll continue that theme all week long,” Spicer said. He said the suggestion that past theme weeks had struggled was “unbelievably false,” adding that “it shows what a bubble some of the Washington reporters live in.”

Past theme weeks have included policy speeches and big-name roundtables.

For “infrastructure week,” Trump visited Ohio to pitch his plans for upgrading deteriorating bridges and roads. But the effort competed for attention with fired FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony, as well as Trump’s tweets about the London mayor and his travel ban.

During “technology week,” the White House welcomed top CEOs — including Jeff Cook of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon— for a brainstorming session. Trump later traveled to Iowa to tour a community college, and followed that up with a raucous campaign rally.

In “energy week,” Trump touted a “golden era of American energy” during a speech. But his decision to target cable talk show host Mika Brzezinski on Twitter diverted attention, as did the unsuccessful push for a Senate vote on health-care legislation.

Trump embraced the “Made in America” theme at a kickoff event Monday that featured products from all 50 states displayed inside and outside the White House. Speaking to assembled business owners and executives, he promised that “restoring American manufacturing will not only restore our wealth, it will restore our pride and pride in ourselves.”

Continuing the theme, Trump was to play host at a “Made in America” round table at the White House Wednesday and attend the commissioning of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford on Saturday.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said in a statement that he was “encouraged that the White House is talking about manufacturing this week.” But he added: “if we really want to support and grow American manufacturing we need more than theme weeks and slogans; we need new ideas, new policies, and real leadership from the White House.”

Focusing on a specific theme is not a new communications tactic, and it sometimes can be a valuable approach.

“In the Bush administration we had theme weeks pretty regularly, normally tied around an ongoing legislative push or trying to bring attention to an issue we felt wasn’t being talked about enough,” said Conant. “It’s a very good exercise to get everyone on the same page talking about the same thing.”

But there are limits to what they can accomplish.

“They take a lot of staff work and they rarely move the needle,” said Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser now at the Brookings Institution.

More themed weeks are coming soon: The White House said “American Heroes” and “American Dreams” are up next.
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