President Donald Trump is expected to stick to the script in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Expect a scripted speech that heralds optimism and bipartisanship. Then, wait for the tweets.
By David Catanese / 01.29.2018
As erratic and impulsive the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has been, he’s proven that at key moments he can stick to a script.
If all goes to plan, his State of the Union address on Tuesday night will tout a rosy economy juiced by fresh tax cuts and a soaring stock market, a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal that seeks bipartisan support and an immigration compromise that provides a path to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for a $25 billion investment in border security.
The overarching headline the White House is seeking: The American economy is roaring again and everyone’s benefiting.
With an average audience of 40 million viewers, the State of the Union is the paramount opportunity for a president to frame an agenda, recast the national narrative and, of course, look presidential.
It’s possible Trump may accomplish all of this in his estimated 60 minutes on the dais of the U.S. House of Representatives.
But given his capricious nature, one can’t assume the speech will fundamentally alter the trajectory of his presidency. No matter how well Trump presents the State of the Union address, it will take a consistent and continuous course correction over time to change fundamental impressions about his leadership capabilities and governing vision.
“If you are putting on a costume on Halloween, you’re not going to wear that Halloween costume on November 1st,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management, during a panel discussion on Monday. “And I think if the president puts on a costume [Tuesday] night, it might look great and it might end up getting him some rave reviews, but ultimately Donald Trump is Donald Trump.”
With an approval rating hovering around 40 percent and a special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling dangling over his administration, Trump begins his second year in a politically precarious atmosphere. The midterm elections are less than 10 months away, providing little incentive for Democrats to work with him and hand him a bipartisan victory. Even some Republicans have found him to be an unreliable and fickle negotiating partner. Allies aren’t worried about Trump’s capacity to deliver the speech well; they worry about what comes after.
“He has so many accomplishments and so many good things that he has done, [and] has the potential to do. But it seems like every time he moves the ball down the field, he gets a penalty flag for unnecessary roughness. It’s the spontaneous moments that get him,” said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer at an event held by The Washington Post on Monday.
In previewing the speech, a White House official said the president would stake out a tone of bipartisanship with “forward-looking” callouts to Congress about what legislation he wants to see passed.
A massive infrastructure plan is being billed as a significant portion of the address, and perhaps represents the president’s best chance at securing a legislative achievement this year.
“He’s a builder, he wants to rebuild this nation. But you do that in a bipartisan fashion,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway at the Post event.
But time and time again, his off-the-cuff remarks and trigger-happy Twitter posts have undermined efforts with members of both parties, most recently during negotiations over immigration and resolving the stalemate on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. To elevate that issue, many Democrats are bringing so-called Dreamers as their guests, guaranteeing television reaction shots of the young people directly impacted by the president’s policy prescription.
Congressional Republicans are desperately looking for White House leadership on the immigration, but can’t be assured that what Trump says on Tuesday night won’t change in the coming days and weeks, based on how conservative media stars react to the address and which outside advisers capture his ear.
“The president has always talked about infrastructure, but it’s also, just as with immigration, been a moving kind of target,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Last February, the president earned widespread plaudits for his joint address to Congress. Less than three days later, he took to Twitter to demand an investigation of Democratic leadership and accuse former President Barack Obama of wire-tapping him. Any goodwill produced from the speech evaporated almost immediately.
Hudak says the lesson is that the media should refrain from offering definitive grades of the performance.
“I think our media . . . often times turn a State of the Union speech into a superlative. President Trump’s first address to a joint session last year was ‘the moment he became presidential.’ It was actually a garbage speech. There was nothing stunning about it. He read from a teleprompter. Great,” he said.
Molly Reynolds, a fellow of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, said presidents rarely achieve significant or lasting polling bumps from a State of the Union, and increasingly partisan audiences make that even tougher to achieve.
“It’s not at all clear to me that anything he says or does [Tuesday] night is going to correct that over the long term,” Reynolds said of Trump’s political unpopularity. “What happens [Tuesday] night really isn’t going to change much for Trump.”
While it’s certainly true that Trump is often his own worst enemy, self-inflicting political wounds that metastasize over time, he also is the unmatched engine of a breathless media cycle with a short-lived attention span.
The threat of another government shutdown next week, Trump’s potential interview with special counsel Robert Mueller and an approaching March deadline for DACA recipients ensure the bright spotlight of the State of the Union will quickly fade. Just as often, staffing turmoil or interagency tensions boil over and take over a news cycle, as they did on Monday with the abrupt resignation of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.