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Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
On Wednesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced President Donald Trump, and her expanded Democratic caucus, to the big leagues.
By sending a carefully crafted, old-school letter to convey that the President was no longer invited to deliver the State of the Union on January 29, she played the political game on her terms and accomplished three important things.
First, the President will no longer deliver the biggest speech of the year on the date he selected (unless something changes in a big way soon). Both the House and the Senate have to pass resolutions for the State of the Union to proceed; neither have done so, and the decision about whether the House passes one at all rests with Pelosi.
It is true that television viewership of the State of the Union has dropped (though online viewership has steadily climbed), and in the age of Twitter, online videos and ample other options for direct connection to voters, the power of a presidential speech is far smaller.
But the State of the Union is still one of the last relics of the power of the bully pulpit. It offers presidents the opportunity to lay out their agenda for the year ahead, give direction to Congress (including their own party in Congress) and deliver a blueprint for campaign messaging. It also allows every president to get a few jabs in on the opposing party.
As of now Trump can deliver his speech from the Oval Office if he wants, though last week’s performance should be a warning on how ineffective that can be. Or he can do it at a rally and speak to the same people he will speak to for the next year and a half – or he can “write it,” as Pelosi suggested.
None of those options is as impactful as a traditional State of the Union. And none of these options will position the House speaker behind him while he blames Democrats for the shutdown.
Second, Pelosi showed Trump and members of her own party why she is the boss. Congress is a co-equal branch of government, and she was has every right to disinvite the President. But there is no doubt she left Trump, many members of his staff and many of the freshmen and up-and-coming members of her own caucus surprised she had the power to disinvite him. If anyone needed a reminder as to why an experienced speaker, who knows how to fight gracefully with a bully on her own terms, is needed right now, Wednesday’s events were a healthy reminder.
She even boxed in Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went from rightly condemning the racist comments of fellow member Steve King one day earlier to lowering himself to using gender-tinged language to criticize Pelosi the next. He described her decision as “unbecoming” – as if he were talking about a woman not wearing pantyhose to a cotillion dance, not a speaker of the House using her legal capacity to disinvite the President from speaking on the House floor.
Third, she reminded the American public that Trump has the power to end the shutdown. While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has somehow managed to throw his hands up in the air and claim powerlessness without suffering publicly, House Democrats have been more visible in the fight. Her actions helped unite Democrats, while also turning the spotlight back on the President.
Pelosi clearly struck a nerve with the President, who hamhandedly lashed out Thursday afternoon, informing her hours before the plane was to depart that her trip had been effectively canceled. What he failed to acknowledge, and is now exceedingly awkward for him, is that the trip was to meet with top NATO commanders, US military leaders and key allies as well as a stop in Afghanistan to thank the troops. Never mind the fact that the President himself had already traveled to Iraq on a Republican CODEL during the shutdown.
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Success for Pelosi here is not preventing Trump from giving a speech. He can do that any day. It is not avoiding criticism from Republicans; that too is inevitable. But with one letter, she made clear there is a new speaker in town, she is playing by her own rules and the President and his team better be ready.