On Tuesday night, 39 days after his brief and ominous inaugural address, President Donald Trump has an opportunity to flesh out real policy proposals in the highest-profile speech of his presidency to date.
In his first address before a joint session of Congress, the tradition-flouting president will take part in a carefully choreographed House chamber appearance that serves as the functional equivalent of the traditional State of the Union during a president’s first year in office.
Unlike a freewheeling rally, or a hostile press conference—two of Trump’s favorite modes of speechifying—the joint session speech is, typically, a formal address. It’s supposed to be an indicator of the mission of the new administration, and a demonstration of the discipline required to pursue an agenda to completion. It’s an appearance at which no one—even his fans—expects Trump to be ad-libbing for long stretches about crowd size, or the “dishonest media.”
The stakes are high for Trump, who has largely exhausted his room to make policy unilaterally from the White House by executive order and will need Congress to accomplish his ambitious agenda.
When President Barack Obama gave his first joint session address in 2009, he outlined an expansive economic agenda, mid-economic crisis—and used the speech as an opportunity to push that agenda forward at a moment when he enjoyed a high approval rating.
Trump, in contrast, will enter the Chamber with a historically low approval rating of 44 percent and a Congress hungry for specifics on his biggest policy goals, like repealing and replacing Obamacare.
Here are five things to watch at Tuesday night’s speech:
Is Trump capable of delivering a traditional, substantive speech?
Some presidents droned on for longer than others (see: Bill Clinton), but State of the Union speeches, going back decades, usually clock in around 60 minutes long, and include detailed laundry lists of domestic and international policy goals. That’s much, much longer than Trump has ever stayed on a teleprompter, or on topic, without veering wildly off course. His Inauguration Day speech was a brisk 16 minutes short. When he does go long—like his epic 76-minute press conference earlier this month—it’s typically off-prompter, and includes a foil to spar with.
But Trump’s digressions—whether about crowd size, his unproven theories about fraudulent voting, or his ad hominem attacks on the media—are beginning to wear on his top White House aides, who wince when they see him veering off course and are desperate to find a way to keep the free-styling president more focused.
While no one expects that there will be any sort of “pivot” from Trump, who has proven in his first month in office that there is only ever one Donald J. Trump, even White House aides are hoping for something more formal on Tuesday night.
In an interview with “Fox and Friends” on Tuesday morning, Trump acknowledged a White House messaging problem. “I think I’ve done great things but I don’t think I – and my people – I don’t think we’ve explained it,” he said. If Trump’s problem is really his communications shop, on Tuesday night he has the floor to explain himself.
“If I had one guiding principle for this speech, it would be the simple phrase ‘surprise them with substance,’” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden. “He will go off script a bit, that’s just his style, but don’t lose sight of the fact that this is an important opportunity to frame big, bold choices for the country around healthcare, tax reform, regulatory reform, infrastructure and national security.”
Will the Democrats heckle?
Democrats were outraged when South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted Obama during a Sept. 2009 address to Congress on health care reform, pointing his finger and shouting, “You lie!” at the president. Wilson’s outburst was in response to Obama’s assertion that the Affordable Care Act would not benefit undocumented immigrants (and Wilson’s claim was promptly rated “false” by Politifact).
It was a major breach of decorum, and House Democrats led a successful effort to publicly rebuke him.
Then, at the State of the Union the following year, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito openly disagreed with Obama, mouthing the words “not true” when the president criticized the high court’s ruling in the Citizens United case for “opening the floodgates for special interests.”
Now that the tables are turned, will angry, showboating Democrats or liberal Justices, follow the Wilson-Alito playbook and seek to publicly embarrass and undermine Trump—or will they take the higher road, grinning and bearing it through scripted applause lines? Resistance is already in the air.
Members of the House who boycotted Trump’s inauguration are grudgingly attending his speech on Tuesday night. But they’re making a statement by bringing along guests who would be directly affected by Trump’s immigration and health care proposals. Rep. Jim Langevin, for instance, is bringing a Muslim-American doctor, Ehsun Mirza, who was born in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Democratic leaders like Sen. Chuck Schumer are already taking the air out of Trump’s big speech, arguing that the president contradicts himself so often his words have lost all meaning.
Will he talk about the price—of anything?
Trump’s preliminary budget, still being drafted, proposes a $54 billion increase in military spending—but the president and his aides have yet to explain how, exactly, he’s going to pay for that. He has also hinted at a “big” infrastructure announcement that he will pop in the middle of his speech.
Trump-friendly Fox anchor Steve Doocy noted on Tuesday that cutting all funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department would still leave Trump $4 billion short of funding his military expansion. “I think the money’s going to come from a revved-up economy,” Trump told Fox & Friends in his appearance Tuesday morning.
Some expect Trump to be more focused on politics than price tag. “Watch for a focus on Infrastructure of the country—and of the Republican Party,” said political strategist Stu Loeser, former press secretary to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “We can expect to see a carefully-culled list aimed at states where he did well and there are Democratic Senators up for reelection in 2018, like Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Montana. Trump will all but dare Members from these places to stand in his way—and if they are smart, they’ll cooperate and co-opt him.”
Paul Ryan’s facial expressions:
House Speaker Paul Ryan was mocked last year for showing no emotion as he sat behind President Obama at the State of the Union and stared blankly at the back of his head. Twitter wondered whether he was dead on the inside, being held hostage in the Chamber against his will, or trying to imitate the neutral-faced emoji. He was. Ryan aides said it was an effort to blend into the background—but, unfortunately, the blank face had the exact opposite effect and became its own sideshow.
This year, people close to Ryan said expect him to be slightly more expressive as he listens to the agenda of his own party’s president. Yet Ryan and Trump are locked in a battle over the party’s future and ideology. Look for an opaque, Mona Lisa smile.
What matters most is what Trump says on health care.
On Sunday night, Trump promised governors from across the country that he planned to repeal and replace Obamacare with something “very, very special.”
House Republicans are looking for an endorsement a lot more specific than that on Tuesday. They want Trump to embrace specific components of their Obamacare replacement plan – a draft proposal of which has Republicans scrapping Medicaid expansion and replacing subsidies with tax credits based on age instead of income.
The feeling on the Hill, according to senior Republican aides, is that priorities like tax reform are still months away. Trump has been clear about the administration’s immigration policies. But how the party will manage to satisfy promises to eliminate Obamacare without leaving millions of Americans without insurance is an open question, and Trump’s support is widely seen as a linchpin for any deal unifying his fractious party. “His embrace of specific components would go a very long way,” said one top Republican aide on the Hill. “I don’t want him to get into nerdy details on Medicaid policy, but references to various parts of our plan would be helpful.”
Powered by WPeMatico