President Donald Trump’s annual State of the Union address is poised to deliver the kind of irresistible prime-time drama that its sporting equivalent, a snoozer Super Bowl, lacked.
The theater that unfolds in the House chamber on Tuesday will encapsulate a turbulent moment in America’s story, resonate with clashing political egos and paint a picture of stark national divides and accelerating demographic change.
Dominating the spotlight, where he loves to be, will be a President who believes he’s unfairly treated but whose grasps for personal glory often alienate all but his most loyal followers and make the recognition he craves ever more elusive.
Looking over Trump’s shoulder, literally and metaphorically, will be new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is using her Democratic majority’s investigative muscle to complicate the President’s political life and peg back his power.
That hostile Democratic caucus will be staring right back at Trump as he gives his speech, depriving him of the adoration he gets from restorative crowds of Make America Great Again fans at campaign rallies.
The transformative power of the midterm elections will be written on the faces of the most diverse House majority in history in terms of race and gender, while the Republican half of the chamber will look mostly white, male and middle aged.
Democrats will stress the comparison by enlisting Georgia’s rising star Stacey Abrams, who narrowly failed to be elected as the first black woman governor of any state, to deliver their State of the Union response.
And watching Trump from the House will be 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, no doubt dreaming of soon taking his spot on the podium.
White House: ‘Listen to the message, not the man’
Aides say Trump will, unusually, respect tradition in his speech and call for unity as predecessors have done in the century since the custom of in-person State of the Union addresses was revived by President Woodrow Wilson.
He will call for “an end to the politics of resistance and retribution,” his counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Monday. She said people should “should listen to the message, not always just look at the messenger.”
Therein lies Trump’s constant battle. He more than anyone is the master of the politics of retribution and his attempts to shoulder the burden of national leadership have often been undermined by his explosive character and rhetoric.
Trump’s evocation of a common American mission could be easily forgotten if he slips into his scorching rhetoric on immigration.
However sincere he is on working with Democrats to cut the cost of prescription drugs or to repair infrastructure, a few searing lines on the border wall may be all that most people remember.
“Sometimes he is his own worst enemy, ” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, who edited the book “The State of the Union Is …. “
“We saw it with the inaugural address, the line ‘American carnage’ – after (that), it was known as the American carnage speech and was all the focus on how dark and somber the tone was,” Kall said.
Still, Trump’s appearance is a golden opportunity to spend an unfiltered hour with the American people at a time when his presidency itself is under threat from the Russia probe and when a majority of voters oppose him.
The President is adamant that he has a great story to tell. He said in an interview with CBS News that he’s doing “the best job of any president, in the history of our country, for the first two years.”
And no one, not even boom time Presidents such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had a job-creating record to tout in a State of the Union address to match Trump’s – even if critics chafe at rising inequality.
There’s a good case to be made that Trump should talk about nothing else than an economy that pumped out an estimate-smashing 304,000 jobs last week.
But on other issues, wins seen by Trump and his supporters as his top achievements alienate other voters. That’s especially true of the border wall that has almost mystical significance in Trump country and is seen as an immoral affront to US values by opponents.
Trump’s tax plan is the great legislative success of his presidency – but for Democrats it’s a massive give away for the rich. The turmoil in Washington delights Trump fans but it’s just chaos for everyone else. And by highlighting his biggest win last year – the seating of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – Trump will reopen toxic divides.
The polarization that will limit the power of Trump’s calls for unity was visible in the latest CNN poll published Monday.
Trump goes into the State of the Union address in his third year with the lowest approval rating of any President of the last 60 years apart from Reagan, though the Gipper did win a landslide the following year.
The big question – a constant one in his presidency – is whether Trump will seek to speak to the skeptics or prioritize the 40% of devoted supporters in the CNN poll who embrace his anti-elite crusade.
Shutdown angst lingers
Trump will arrive on Capitol Hill at a raw moment. Just over a week ago his capitulation ended a government shutdown that he triggered to get funding for his wall. Unless Democrats agree to fold, a new shutdown could begin in 10 days – or Trump could ignite the most serious constitutional conflagration of his presidency by declaring a national emergency to build the wall.
Encapsulating Trump’s self-made box on immigration, a staggering 78% of conservative Republicans think Trump should shutter the government again to get wall funding – even though the shutdown was a political disaster for him.
Given that she infuriated Trump by postponing the State of the Union during the shutdown, the body language and the maneuvering between Trump and Pelosi will be fascinating.
Perhaps the President, in unifier mode, will offer the speaker an olive branch despite calling her “very bad for our country” in a Super Bowl interview.
Or will he try to crank up political pressure on her by offering a concession? He could, perhaps offer a path to citizenship for DACA recipients that Democrats really want, which could spur calls for wall funding in return. But whatever Trump says will impact congressional negotiations on immigration meant to head off another shutdown.
“If he wants to emphasize bipartisanship and look ahead to the coming year, he could talk about broader issues of immigration reform,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“The issue with immigration has been that he proposes some ideas that could possibly have bipartisan support then puts some things on the table that are just not going to be workable across the aisle,” she said.
Possible poison pills include Trump’s proposed changes to family based and diversity visas and changes to asylum law.
A White House official said aides hoped the President could use the address to present himself to Americans as the “adult at the table” after the shutdown imbroglio, so he will not be heavily partisan.
The special counsel who must not be named
Trump faces a delicate assignment in dealing with the cloud hovering over his appearance in the shape of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that some Democrats believe could lead to impeachment.
He would be advised to replicate President Bill Clinton’s attitude after his impeachment and before his Senate trial when he didn’t mention the elephant in the room during his 1999 State of the Union address.
Trump is unlikely to adopt the approach of President Richard Nixon in 1974 when he called for investigations against him to end, with the ultimately futile statement: “One year of Watergate is enough.”
State of the Union addresses are typically long lists of proposals for government action and statements of foreign policy goals meant to be heard by America’s foes and friends around the world.
Any White House agenda would likely be dead on arrival in Pelosi’s House.
But Trump is expected to lay out potential compromises on issues like prescription drugs prices and the classic program that everyone favors but never gets done – infrastructure repair.
The President’s aggressive foreign policy moves regarding Venezuela and Iran will likely headline the foreign policy portion of the speech. There may also be hints of progress in talks to defuse a trade war with China. Trump was not expected to discuss the location and date of his second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, three sources told CNN Tuesday morning, though they noted plans could change in the run-up to the speech. A source told CNN last week that the meeting was planned for Vietnam in late February.
CNN’s Pamela Brown, Sarah Westwood, Kaitlan Collins, Kevin Liptak and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.