Every year, when spring is in the air, newly-minted college graduates prepare to enter the real world. This year, Donald Trump is ready to greet them. 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.
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.”