Facing clear political peril, President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address at a moment when his bully pulpit is uncertain and his negotiating skills in question after a monthlong government shutdown that exposed fractures in his party and sent his poll numbers tumbling.
Trump hopes to use his Tuesday speech to reset his agenda and begin to gear up for his 2020 re-election campaign. But even as the president promises a theme of unity, his performance is likely to draw cheers from one side of the deeply divided Congress and stony silence from the other.
The split between Democrats and Republicans, each side dug in over Trump’s long-sought border wall, reinforces questions about his ability to move both Congress and the electorate.
All this while Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sits just behind him on the top tier of the House dais during the address, a looming reminder of his shutdown defeat and his struggles to adapt to a new, divided Washington.
The speech itself, an annual set piece that gives the president a grand stage to speak directly to a national audience of millions, could prove bittersweet for Trump. While the president, ever the showman, will relish the theatrics of the moment, his prime-time address to the nation comes a week later than originally planned after Pelosi forced a postponement while the government was closed.
Trump made his dealmaking abilities central to his presidency but he has been unable to move emboldened Democrats, firm in their resistance to paying for a border wall with Mexico. Without it, Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency or shutter the government again. Both options are opposed by a growing number of Republicans, potentially leaving Trump weakened with his own party as several political dark clouds loom. Among them are the conclusion of the special counsel’s Russia investigation and growing talk from the left about the possibility of impeachment.
“Presidents have walked into that chamber in weakened positions before,” said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and author, invoking Bill Clinton after Republicans swept the 1994 midterm elections. “But Trump does not have the usual base of support. Legislative Republicans fell in line with Trump because they were afraid of him and his supporters and if that support is eroding, the end will be quick.”
Trump’s allies, some of whom worry that his voice has been diminished, suggest he should use the speech to showcase his administration’s record as well as repeat his call for the wall.
“He needs to highlight the successes he’s had with the economy and trade and with conservative justices,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “And I think he needs to stare Democrats down and challenge them to defy him on the need for border security.”
As the Feb. 15 deadline that could lead the government to close again nears, the State of the Union provides the president with his best chance yet to sell the public on the need for the wall. Previous efforts at harnessing at the power of the office to make that case have failed.
A trip to the border didn’t move the needle after Trump himself voiced private skepticism that it would work. An Oval Office address was widely panned, with the president himself being his harshest critic, complaining to aides that he looked “flat” and “lifeless.” Round after round of polling suggests that Americans do not believe a wall is needed and don’t feel it is a fight worth shutting down the government over.
White House aides have kept details of the speech under wraps, though Trump is expected to paint a picture of a country on the comeback while pushing new trade deals as well as proposals about drug pricing, health care and public works.
But there will be stark reminders throughout the House chamber that Trump’s political reality has changed, now 21 months before he faces voters again.
Pelosi will be visible in nearly every camera shot beamed to a national broadcast audience. Her presence is evidence of the newly empowered House Democrats. And it makes clear how she can use her political clout and her party can wield the power of the subpoena to thwart Trump’s agenda and open investigations into his government and business.
“It’s a dynamic created in the television age but it’s also a demonstration for the country that the executive and legislative branches are separate but equal powers,” said Jennifer Palmieri, former communications director for President Barack Obama and a top aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “And a very powerful woman who has a big hand in controlling his fate could be very distracting to him.”
In the chamber will be several Democrats vying to replace Trump and rising party stars such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Some Democrats will be flanked by invited guests, including people affected by the shutdown, and their presence is meant to highlight Trump’s vulnerability.
As for the president, he ignored the divisions in Washington as he pledged to use his speech to call for Americans to set aside their differences.
“I really think it’s unification, I think it’s industry, I think it’s about the people you see here,” Trump said Thursday while hosting a group of manufacturers at the White House. “I really think it’s going to be a speech that is going to cover a lot of territory but part of it is going to be unity.”