Our expectations have sunk so low that a major victory for the Trump team at the State of the Union speech on Tuesday night would consist of the President successfully walking down a long hallway and then reading for an hour from prepared remarks without going off script.
If he can accomplish those two things, you can anticipate that the speech will be lauded by many pundits and commentators as a “bright moment in his presidency” and a possible “turning point.”
After all, Trump will be entering the chamber with an approval rating hovering in the high thirties. And hovering over that is an ongoing investigation of many of his advisers and possibly himself by Special Counsel Robert Mueller; the resignation Monday of the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, whom Trump has publicly derided; and a House Intelligence Committee vote to release a controversial partisan memo that accuses the FBI of misusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Despite the opposition of the Department of Justice, Trump has said he’s inclined to release it.
In summary: he is facing some serious headwinds.
The test for Trump and the White House is not whether he can read from a Teleprompter and look “presidential,” but whether he and his team have the discipline and the capacity to use this as a moment to reset. Here are the three real questions the White House should be judged on:
1. Does the speech provide clear policy marching orders?
For any State of the Union, the policy is the meat of the sandwich and the focus is almost always domestic. Typically, the process of preparing begins months in advance with large binders and lengthy meetings in the Roosevelt room, as the policy and communications team determines which policies to include.
First, what is new and will make headlines and drive an agenda. Second, what Congress might be open to taking up in the year ahead.
The White House has already put forward a dead-on-arrival immigration proposal written by none other than Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller. This was supposed to be a framing piece for the State of the Union, and may still show up in the written remarks, but cutting legal immigration back by an estimated 50% and going back to the age of immigration quotas in the 1920s is not going to sail through Congress.
Even conservative hardliners hate the proposal because it includes what they perceive as “amnesty” for Dreamers. Members from both parties have already moved on to negotiate on a much narrower package focused on DACA and border security that is not based on the President’s proposal.
The White House has also hinted that infrastructure will be a central focus of the speech. On the surface, that sounds reasonable and it would be hard for Democrats to remain seated during the obligatory standing ovation. But deficit hawks including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan may not be eager to put a big package of spending on the table, especially after the tax reform bill. A good applause line, but hard to see the path forward.
So where does that leave the policy marching orders?
The big encore to tax reform for Ryan and many Republicans in Congress would be entitlement reform. As tax reform was inching toward passage in December, Ryan let it slip that the way they were going to pay for the tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Americans was to cut entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, asserting casually on a local radio program, “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.”
But the White House has not said that this will be a part of the speech, and members in vulnerable House and Senate districts will not be rushing to sign up to cut social safety net packages in a year when they could lose their seats for far less.
Will anything proposed domestically on Tuesday night have the shelf life and momentum to actually move forward in Congress? As of now the answer appears to be no.
2. Does it provide a blueprint for candidates running for office?
Barring a surprising legislative surge this year, Trump’s success in 2018 will be judged in large part by how congressional candidates fare in November.
While his popularity and scandal-ridden administration don’t make him the most appealing surrogate for vulnerable members, he is still the head of the Republican Party, which is in charge of both houses of Congress, and he continues to have a strong and loyal following from his base. As we have already seen in special elections, his message will have an impact on both vulnerable incumbent members and candidates running.
There is no doubt he will spend a good portion of the State of the Union speech highlighting positive economic indicators and taking credit for the low unemployment rate and the surging stock market. While Democrats accurately argue that these numbers and trends have long been underway, that some of the economic indicators under Obama were actually stronger and that the stock market surge is not helping real people, this will already be a prominent talking point on the campaign trail.
Trump may not do any damage in the speech, but it is hard to see what new proposal or new message will emerge as a blueprint candidates can take with them in their march to November. And in an unpredictable environment where Trump may well attack Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell with new cutting nicknames on Twitter by Wednesday morning, it is hard to see how a unifying party message in the speech on Tuesday sticks.
3. Does the speech help expand his base and unify the public?
This is the goal for any President and every White House. The bully pulpit has been dying a slow death since the internet arrived. It is no longer possible to speak and be heard through traditional media outlets by everyone in America, even if you are the President, with the exception of the State of the Union. The network numbers for the speech typically surge in the first year and go back down in the years following, but the number of people who watch on Facebook and through social media applications has increased.
Of all people, the Twitter President recognizes that. And the White House has sold the speech as “unifying.” That would certainly be an improvement. Recall just one year ago, Trump delivered one of the better speeches of his presidency to the joint session of Congress. But the speech, described as “optimistic” in advance, quickly made way for one of the darkest and most divisive first years of a presidency in modern American history.
While a unifying tone would be smart, recent history tells us that the connection between the tone of the speech and the tone and actions afterward is negligible.
The State of the Union has never been about the ability of the President of the United States to read words on a page, but whether the speech has shelf life afterward in the days, weeks and months ahead. Count me as a skeptic that the administration and Republicans will be able to deliver.