It is no surprise that President Trump does many things differently than his predecessor did, but if Trump could have been expected to emulate Barack Obama in one regard, it might have been as a constant presence on prime-time television.
At this point in his young presidency, Obama had commandeered the evening airwaves five times and was preparing to do so a sixth, before a joint session of Congress in early September. Such ubiquity would seem a natural, even irresistible, strategy for Trump, a former prime-time star on “The Apprentice” who thrived on media exposure as a candidate.
Yet Trump's Monday night remarks about Afghanistan (9 p.m.) will be just his third prime-time address to the nation, putting him at roughly half Obama's pace.
In a notable contrast, Obama used two of his first six addresses to make the case for his health-care plan; Trump, who ran on repealing the Affordable Care Act, never used a prime-time speech to advocate for a Republican health-care package that ultimately failed to pass.
Obama held a prime-time news conference to mark his 100th day in office. Trump did not.
Obama also convened two prime-time news conferences to promote his plan to pull the country out of a recession.
The only overlap between Obama and Trump is the customary speech to a joint session of Congress that presidents typically deliver about a month after inauguration. Trump's other prime-time appearance was to announce his nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
More wasn't necessarily better. In fact, TV networks grumbled about being asked so frequently by the Obama White House to bump their regularly scheduled programming.
Reuters reported in May 2009 that “executives at the big four U.S. broadcast television networks are seething behind the scenes that President Barack Obama has cost them about $30 million in cumulative ad revenue this year with his three prime-time news conferences. Now top network executives quietly are hoping that Fox's decision not to air Obama's April 29 news conference will serve as precedent for denying future White House requests for prime airtime.”
That's right — Fox refused to show one of Obama's prime-time news conferences. It also refused to air Obama's second address to Congress on Sept. 9, 2009. (To be clear, we're talking about the Fox broadcast channel; Fox News carried both events.)
On another occasion, in July 2009, the White House moved an Obama news conference from 9 p.m. to 8 p.m., reportedly because NBC had threatened to boycott the event, unwilling to scrap a telecast of “America's Got Talent,” featuring an interview with Susan Boyle. (Remember her?)
“The president has taken a fair amount of heat for this full-saturation approach,” New York magazine wrote of Obama in August 2009. “Friends and critics alike have complained it cheapens his words, erodes his mystique, and, worst of all, smacks of desperation.”
If Trump thinks less is more, he might be right. But when has Trump ever thought less is more? And when has he ever passed up opportunities to drive the media mad?
Preempting networks' regular programming seems like a classic Trump power move. CNN moved a town-hall event featuring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to accommodate Monday's Afghanistan address.
Trump's remarks could prove a helpful lead-in for the town hall, which will follow at 9:30 p.m. ET. Trump is a big draw, in general, and it is possible that special coverage will boost ratings on some channels. But there are no commercial breaks during a presidential address, which limits networks' ability to capitalize on their viewership.
If a network were to deny the White House's request for a prime-time slot, Trump could cry bias. From a political standpoint, that's not a bad outcome, either.
It is worth noting that Trump's return to prime time Monday follows closely on the heels of Hope Hicks's appointment as interim White House communications director. The timing could be a coincidence — or it could be a signal of things to come.