Nearly four months into his term, President Trump is gearing up for commencement speeches at Liberty University and the Coast Guard Academy, fulfilling ceremonial duties that some of his predecessors have used to make major policy statements.
"They're trying to make memorable statements about where the country is, and what it aspires to be," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a scholar of presidential rhetoric and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Past presidents have used graduation speeches to advocate for preemptive military action, as George W. Bush did, or warn of the perils of political polarization, as Barack Obama did. So, like his predecessors, Trump must now decide whether to take a more ceremonial approach – to give students inspiration and advice to carry with them into the real world – or to focus more on politics and policy.
So far, Trump and his aides have stayed mum on details of his upcoming commencement addresses, though analysts predict he'll choose the latter approach. Religious liberty is likely to be a major topic at Liberty University on Saturday, and Trump is expected to discuss border security at the Coast Guard Academy on May 17.
Both venues are primed to be friendly to Trump – a contrast to schools such as Notre Dame, where students had protested the prospect of a Trump invitation.
Military audiences like the Coast Guard are almost always enthusiastic toward the commander-in-chief. Liberty University, meanwhile, bills itself as the largest Christian university in the world, and the school's president, evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr., is a major political supporter of Trump.
With evangelical voters a major part of his political base, Trump will visit Liberty less than a month after issuing an executive order designed to prevent the government from "bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs."
Given the "politically loaded" backdrop of Liberty University, Princeton University history professor Julian Zelizer said he suspects Trump's "relationship to the speech will be much different than what we have seen the past."
After all, Trump has already changed political norms at other speeches that usually call for more traditional approaches, Jamieson said. She cited his partisan-sounding inaugural address, a dark and brooding speech in which Trump pledged to end "this American carnage" of violence and lost jobs. And there was the National Prayer Breakfast speech in which Trump criticized Arnold Schwarzenegger's ratings as host of The Apprentice.
Trump's tendency to speak more to his base of supporters than Americans at large could reflect in his graduation remarks, Jamieson said. "You don't expect his commencement address to look like a commencement address."
One way Trump is following the traditional path: He's addressing a military academy. This year it's the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., part of a rotation that includes West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy.
His message there could still reflect his own priorities as president, though. Trump has promised to crack down on drug trafficking at borders and ports, and promised to build a wall along the southern border with Mexico. And since the Coast Guard plays major roles in drug interdiction and border security, these topics are likely to surface during the president's speech.
Trump's commencement schedule, like so much of his still-young presidency, has been the subject of controversy.
Notre Dame University has hosted four of the six previous presidents during their first years in office, but the South Bend, Ind., school wound up inviting Vice President Pence, a former governor of the state, after students protested the prospect of a Trump commencement.
Trump's two scheduled commencements are a little below the average number for recent presidents, who have ramped up the frequency of commencement speeches over the past four decades.
President George H.W. Bush appeared to begin the trend. He gave 23 commencement speeches during his four years in office, according to data from the American Presidency Project. President Barack Obama spoke at 24 graduation ceremonies during his two terms – averaging three per year.
The most frequent venues for presidential commencements are historically black colleges and universities, and Ivy League institutions. President rotate through military schools, including West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy as well as the Coast Guard. Presidents have also occasionally spoken at high school commencements.
Commencement speeches are often useful windows into how presidents view the world – and clues to upcoming policies.
In June of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke of armed conflict in Europe and suggested to University of Virginia graduates that the United States might not be able to stay out of a second world war. And a little more that six decades later, speaking in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush spoke to new West Point graduates about the prospect of preemptive military action, less than a year ahead of the invasion of Iraq.
The presidential commencement addresses have also become famous snapshots of their respective eras.
President Dwight Eisenhower cited the threat of censorship and McCarthyism during a 1953 commencement at Dartmouth. President John Kennedy spoke of a new approach to nuclear talks with the Soviet Union at the American University commencement of 1963. Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson visited Howard University to discuss the way forward in the wake of civil rights legislation.
More recently, President Barack Obama spoke to the University of Michigan in 2010 about political polarization. He denounced the idea that, in modern political discourse online and off, people hurl epithets such as "socialist" and "right-wing nut" at each other. Obama said that "you can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism."
As the election cycles continue, however, politics does creep into the commencement speeches.
Just last year, in a commencement address at Rutgers University, Obama appeared to be referring to candidate Trump's immigration policies – and his proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico – by repeatedly mocking the concept of creating walls. To wit: "The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day – building walls won’t change that."
Since Trump often appears in campaign mode, he having filed re-election paperwork with the Federal Election Commission the day of his inauguration and frequently hosts rallies to fire up his base, he could continue in a political vein at spring commencement.
Said Jamieson: "It could look more like a campaign speech than a commencement speech in some places."
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