The State of the Union address, which President Trump is scheduled to give on Tuesday, offers most presidents a rich political opportunity. They can use the occasion to announce their agenda for the year ahead; they can make a sales pitch for favorite legislation; they can rally supporters or reach out to critics. They can even try to strike a new, more “presidential” tone, as Trump did in his first address to Congress a year ago. (That speech moved the CNN pundit Van Jones to swoon: “He became president of the United States in that moment.”)
When Barack Obama’s popularity faltered eight years ago, White House aides seized on the State of the Union as a remedy. “This speech is our best chance to rise above the din and describe a coherent vision,” they advised the president in a memo.
But Trump can no longer aspire to most of those goals. After his chaotic first year in office, many of them are beyond reach. He can still list his priorities and rally his supporters, of course. But he can no longer “pivot” to the center; after a year in which he governed as a partisan Republican, that opportunity is gone. Democrats are in no mood to believe his sporadic professions of bipartisanship, especially in a congressional election year.
Trump can’t “rise above the din” because he has made so much of the din himself through his relentlessly confrontational politics.
And Trump can’t even take full command of his legislative agenda because he’s convinced the leaders of both parties that he isn’t a reliable negotiator. As Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month (about immigration), it’s been difficult to “figure out what he is for.”
Those disabilities will make Trump’s State of the Union address an entertaining exercise in political theater — but almost surely inconsequential when it comes to substance.
Here’s what Trump is likely to say, according to previews from his aides:
He’ll trumpet the success of the economy over the past year and claim that the credit should be his. He’ll tell his supporters, whose numbers have settled at about 37%, that he’s delivering on his campaign promises.
He’ll list his main priorities for the year ahead: an infrastructure bill, immigration reform, work requirements for Medicaid and other welfare programs, and action on trade.
He’ll ask Democrats for help on an infrastructure bill to rebuild the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and airports. White House aides have said they will propose $200 billion in federal spending, but they haven’t said where the money will come from. (Trump has touted figures as high as $1.7 trillion, but most of that would be state and local spending, not federal dollars.)
He’ll press for an immigration bill that would allow “Dreamers,” immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, to remain — but would also reduce legal immigration and fund his long-promised wall on the border with Mexico. He’s asked for Democrats’ help on that issue, too, but he seems mostly intent on using it as a partisan cudgel against them. (He denounced the Senate Democratic leader last week, in a tweet, as “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” an unpromising approach to bipartisanship.)
On all of those issues, Trump’s words on Tuesday won’t be final. What he says in his speech won’t matter as much as it would for a president who understood the details of his policies, was willing to do the hard work of negotiating, and could be relied on to stick to one position.
But then, formal, prepared speeches have never been Trump’s forte.
He can be compelling at a campaign rally, when his speech is an unpredictable stream of consciousness. He can be blunt and authentic on Twitter, the unfiltered mode of communication that he says is “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”
Teleprompter Trump is more constrained and less convincing. When he delivers a speech prepared by his staff, he often sounds as if he is reading it for the first time. (“So true,” he’ll interject when he notices a line he especially likes.)
That’s the president we’ll see in the State of the Union address on Tuesday: an artificial Donald Trump, striving to give an impression of gravitas that doesn’t quite fit.
It will still be worth watching — not only as performance art, but also as a signal of the image the president and his staff want to convey. Just remember that Teleprompter Trump isn’t the real thing. For that, you’ll have to wait until Twitter Trump reappears.
Doyle McManus is a contributing writer to Opinion and was a columnist from 2008 to 2017.