On Tuesday night, Donald Trump will find himself in that position, a position that many once thought inconceivable. It will be interesting to see how he responds. Will he read from his prepared remarks, ignoring the partisan response his comments will evoke? Will he go off prompter and add Trumpian asides? Will he talk about how his speech before Congress — what in future years will be his State of the Union address — is the greatest, most popular speech that’s ever been given?
Here is one prediction: He will likely tweet that it was more popular than the Oscars at some point in the next 24 hours.
The pattern of presidential speeches before Congress is often that they attract fewer viewers as a presidency moves forward. Bill Clinton’s most popular was his first, in 1993. (Ratings spiked in 1998, since he was speaking shortly after the Lewinsky affair came to light.) George W. Bush’s peak was in 2003, as war with Iraq approached; his last, like Clinton’s, received his lowest ratings. Barack Obama’s ratings slipped consistently over time.
Notice that the first speeches offered by Obama and Bush received higher ratings than Bush and Clinton’s final ones. That suggests that Trump will probably enjoy higher ratings than Obama saw last year — even setting aside curiosity about how Trump will handle the moment.
It also means that Trump will probably be able to declare victory over his hated opponents in fancy-pants Hollywood. Trump consistently disparaged celebrities on the campaign trail, both because he found it useful to cast “elites” as a foil and because big Hollywood stars were rejecting him in turn. He at one point pledged a star-packed convention, but it never came to fruition. As Election Day approached, he would brag about how he didn’t need big names for turnout at his events. As the inauguration neared, he claimed that “so-called ‘A’ list celebrities” were clamoring for tickets. There’s not any indication that they actually were; in fact, some reports indicated that the president-elect’s team was hustling to get big names to show up. When Meryl Streep bashed Trump at the Golden Globes, Trump called her “over-rated” on Twitter.
So Trump is going to want to exact revenge, and ratings will probably let him do it. Oscars viewership has slipped over the past several years, now only slightly higher than viewership of the Grammys — and presidential speeches. (None of these things is watched as much as the Super Bowl, even though the Super Bowl is often boring.)
If Trump beats Obama’s 2016 speech, he’ll almost certainly also beat those Hollywood snobs in the Nielsen race. And that would be a victory that Trump would undoubtedly relish pointing out. Remember, he was quick to note when the ratings for his inauguration beat Obama’s from 2012.
Put another way: This will be one of those moments of Trump’s presidency when Donald Trump is likely to shine through.
Update: Victory for Trump. The speech earned 43.4 million viewers — well under what Obama saw in 2009, but more than the Oscars.
That victory did not go unnoticed.