Amid turmoil, Trump seeking a reset with State of the Union
Beset by poor poll numbers and the grind of the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump will look to reset his term with his first State of the Union address, arguing that his tax cut and economic policies will benefit all Americans.
The theme of his Tuesday night address to Congress and the country is “Building a safe, strong and proud America,” and the president is looking to showcase accomplishments of his first year while setting the tone for the second.
Aides say the president plans to set aside his more combative tone for one of compromise, and to make an appeal beyond his base.
Trump often engages in hyperpartisan politics, and his tax overhaul has been criticized for disproportionately favoring the wealthy. But he will try to make the case that all groups of people have benefited during his watch, according to a senior administration official who was not authorized to preview the speech for the record and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The annual address is a big set piece for any president, a prime-time window to address millions of voters. Every word is reviewed, every presidential guest carefully chosen, every sentence rehearsed. The stakes are enormous for Trump, hoping to move past a turbulent first 12 months in office.
Trump is giving the speech “with the lowest approval ratings of any president in his first year in the history of presidential polling, and can point to the least number of legislative accomplishments,” said Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown University. “Every month that goes by in which Trump fails to increase his support works against him because voters’ negative impressions of him will just solidify.”
She said the address “could turn that around if he strikes a bipartisan conciliatory tone and makes it more about the country than about himself.”
Five themes are expected to dominate: the economy and the tax overhaul, infrastructure, immigration, trade, and terrorism and global threats.
Selling the GOP’s tax plan is an election-year project as Republicans look to retain their majority in Congress. The tax changes are billed as essential to powering the ambitious projections of economic growth, and Trump is expected to cite the benefits to the public that proponents envision.
Trump also plans to outline a nearly $2 trillion plan that his administration contends will trigger $1 trillion or more in public and private spending on roads, bridges and other public works projects.
On immigration, he will promote his new proposal for $25 billion for a wall along the Mexican border and for a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the United States as children and now here illegally.
Trump’s trade talk will reflect what he discussed at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Friday: a preference for one-on-one deals instead of multilateral agreements.
The public should get an update on the fight against terrorism and an assessment of international threats, including North Korea. The senior administration official said Trump probably would avoid the taunts of “Little Rocket Man” for Kim Jong Un and “fire and fury” that he used before.
The White House says one of Trump’s guests for the speech will be someone who has been touched by the opioid crisis.
The address comes at a critical point for the president. He wants to move past the government shutdown that coincided with the anniversary of his inauguration and prepare for a grueling election season that is shaping up as a referendum on his leadership. Trump and members of his Cabinet are expected to travel in the days after the speech to drive home its themes.
Critics wonder why the president will show the resolve to stay on message.
“The most capable White Houses use the State of the Union as an organizing moment to set agenda for the whole year, from both a messaging and legislative perspective,” said Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for President Barack Obama. “I don’t think this White House is capable of that kind of discipline. So even if he gives a good speech, it is unlikely to have any staying power and transcend his broader problems of not being able to drive a coherent agenda or generate support for himself beyond his core supporters.”
Sometimes, the address is a high-water mark for a president.
In 2002, Republican George W. Bush used the speech to define the “axis of evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – that he believed supported terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction.
In 1996, Democrat Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over” after emerging from a shutdown fight.
In 1941, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined the “four freedoms” that people across the globe held dear in the face of World War II’s horrors.
The White House, led by policy adviser Stephen Miller and staff secretary Rob Porter, has spent weeks on the speech, seeking input from Cabinet secretaries and agency leaders. Several drafts have circulated throughout the West Wing and the president has weighed in with handwritten notes.
A White House official said the speech-writing process has helped cut through the “hangover” of passing the tax bill just before the holidays and kept officials more focused on issues than they might otherwise have been through Trump’s trip this past week.
Trump did address a joint session of Congress in 2017, though it was not technically a State of the Union speech because it occurred barely a month into his term. It was notable for this president for how it hewed to conventional speechmaking.
Lemire reported from New York.