Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and the author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
On February 5, President Donald Trump will finally get to deliver his State of the Union address after agreeing to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s request to hold off on the speech during the 35-day government shutdown. Pelosi will certainly be sitting in the House chamber on Tuesday — right behind Trump, alongside Vice President Mike Pence and in constant view of the cameras – with a good deal of pride, after essentially forcing him to accept a bill to fund the government through February 15, and without any money for his border wall.
The tension between Trump and the Democratic speaker will be the most interesting thing to watch for Tuesday night, given that it may indicate the drama that will play out in coming months. Without question, Pelosi is the most lethal political threat to this presidency. The House has the power to issue subpoenas, launch investigations and hearings and initiate impeachment proceedings. Trump’s fate may very well be shaped by her decisions.
This won’t be the first time in US history that a president has been at odds with the House speaker. When the State of the Union was first televised in 1947, Democrat Harry Truman took to the podium after a remarkable change in House leadership. The speaker, Massachusetts Rep. Joe Martin, was the first Republican to take on the role since Democrats dominated the lower chamber in 1933. Truman went on to fight the Republicans in his effort to expand on Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy, and later campaigned against a “do-nothing” Congress in 1948.
In January 1974, President Richard Nixon famously told the nation, “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” Speaker Carl Albert must have sat there thinking about the congressional and prosecutorial investigations that had put Nixon in an incredibly precarious position. The coming months proved as tumultuous as anything Albert could have imagined. Six months after Nixon’s address, the House completed its investigation and voted for articles of impeachment, which led to Nixon’s resignation in August.
When President Ronald Reagan delivered his first State of the Union address in January 1982, Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill sat behind him, no doubt struggling to make sense of the conservative revolution that threatened all the New Deal and Great Society programs he held dear. One year later, O’Neill looked a bit more confident after the midterms greatly strengthened the Democratic majority in the House and gave his party a platform from which to fight the Republican administration.
When O’Neill’s successor, Speaker Jim Wright, looked on from his SOTU perch behind Reagan in January 1987, shortly after the Iran Contra scandal broke, he must have wondered if the President would survive the rest of his term.
And nothing will ever compare to the sheer glee that seemed to emanate from the new Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich as he watched President Bill Clinton deliver the State of the Union address in 1995, just months after the midterm elections delivered control of the House to the GOP for the first time in 40 years.
Gingrich had already stepped down by 1999, but his successor Dennis Hastert sat behind Clinton as he addressed the nation just one month after the House had voted to impeach the President.
When Nancy Pelosi, in her first go-round as speaker, sat behind President George W. Bush, the sense of relief among Democrats who were tired of the war in Iraq was as palpable as the sense of gloom that arrived for them when Speaker John Boehner sat behind President Barack Obama in 2011.
This time, the tension between the President and the speaker – occupying the position Paul Ryan held just weeks ago – will likely be as severe as anything we have seen. The speech comes in the aftermath of a devastating budget battle, during which Pelosi proved to be the first Democratic politician able to stand up to the President and effectively shut him down.
The State of the Union address could also mark a key moment for this President. As the nation awaits special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, along with the conclusions of multiple congressional investigations, the President’s fate rests largely in Pelosi’s hands. She will have the power to give the Democrats the green light on bigger investigations and play a central role in the decision to initiate a formal impeachment process.
In November, Americans were reminded that elections really matter. The President may have been protected from oversight by the Republican-controlled House in the first two years of his presidency. But with the Democrats now in control, Trump faces investigations as well as legislative roadblocks.
Pelosi, who controls the legislative agenda, will call the shots on proposals and floor debates that will only highlight the fundamental differences that now separate the two parties.
While Trump and Pelosi were born just six years apart (Trump in 1946 and Pelosi in 1940) they represent two different visions for the future of America. Pelosi is a champion of utilizing government to solve domestic problems and preserving international alliances that have served US interests abroad since World War II. Her pluralistic vision of the future of this country clashes with the President’s focus on his base, much of which consists of disaffected white, male, rural voters who support an America First approach to foreign policy.
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They are both tough partisans. Pelosi is an old-school legislator who believes in fighting her battles through the formal political process and old-fashioned vote counting. She has little interest in the frenzied public square. President Trump believes in utilizing social media and television appearances to enact aggressive political warfare with little regard for institutions and norms.
It remains unclear who will emerge victorious, but the delayed State of the Union is certainly the opening bell for an epic fight between these two political leaders.