President Trump will try to bring his pitchman’s A-game to his first State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, though even the strongest performance may not sway many voters.
Trump will have about 60 minutes of prime time Tuesday night to try to turn public opinion as his approval rating sits at historic lows for a president at this point in his term, and his party faces the prospect of losing control of the House and perhaps the Senate in the midterm election.
Many viewers will tune in to hate-watch Trump, though a president’s fans are usually more likely to watch such speeches than are opponents. Only about 4 in 10 Americans approve of Trump’s performance in office, numerous polls have shown. His challenge will be to reach the shrinking slice of swing voters who can be persuaded that he is taking the country in the right direction.
White House advisors suggest Trump won’t engage in the sort of bombastic populist rhetoric that defined his inaugural address, with its bleak evocation of “American carnage,” but will, as one advisor put it, deliver a message that “resonates with our American values” and “unites us with patriotism.”
Trump will speak to the nation as momentum seems to be building in the special counsel’s investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia to win the election and whether Trump, as president, has sought to impede the inquiry.
The president told reporters at the White House on Monday that he had “worked hard” on the speech. It will “cover a lot of territory,” he added, including what he called his administration’s “great success with the markets and with the tax cut,” his proposed immigration deal and demands for better terms on trade.
Immigration will be a prominent topic. Trump will promote the legislative deal he proposed last week to address the plight of young beneficiaries of the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that he ordered to be ended in March.
He proposed to protect from deportation the so-called Dreamers, who came to the country illegally as children, and to provide them a path to citizenship. But Trump also wants to increase border security spending, build his proposed southern border wall and cut legal immigration. Because his plan has bipartisan opposition, his remarks on the subject are especially anticipated.
Though Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate, many oppose any measure that would allow people who came here illegally to become citizens. Trump acknowledged that any immigration measure has “got to be bipartisan because the Republicans really don’t have the votes to get it done in any other way.”
He added, “But hopefully the Democrats will join us, or enough of them will join us, so we can really do something great for DACA and for immigration generally.”
Democrats also are opposed to Trump’s immigration offer, however, because of what they consider its proposed punitive cuts in legal immigration. Also, they are feeling hopeful about the election in November and showing few signs of being conciliatory. That goes as well for Trump’s expected initiative on infrastructure, which was once seen as having the potential for bipartisan support.
Aides said Trump would also address the nuclear threat from North Korea, ongoing attacks against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and his push for increasing military spending.
On other policy matters, the president could tip his hand about crucial decisions on whether to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. He promised as a candidate to scrap both pacts but largely punted during his first year in office.
Also, Trump may address how he and Congress can meet a looming, self-imposed deadline to fund the government on Feb. 8, when the current stopgap spending measure — the fourth since the start of the fiscal year Oct. 1 — expires. Yet the same issues that have divided them, primarily over military spending and immigration policy, remain unresolved.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president would talk about the “great things happening in this country,” accomplishments in his first year, and “all of the great things that we're going to do in the next seven years after this.”
Judging by many polls, however, Trump’s boasts will be met with skepticism if not hostility, except among the loyalists who voted for him. While the White House sees this high-profile, unfiltered address as a rare opportunity for Trump, history has shown that State of the Union speeches rarely have a lasting effect on approval ratings.
Trump will tell the nation that he is "building a safe, strong, proud America,” yet fewer than half of Americans — 44% — are positive about the state of the nation, according to Gallup, the lowest percentage since 2010, when the country was slowly emerging from the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Unemployment is at 4.1%, down from 4.8% on Trump’s first day in office, consumer confidence is high and, as the president notes almost daily, the markets repeatedly have broken records as stocks have climbed in the last year.
The backdrop of a bright economy makes it all the more remarkable that only 38% of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing, according to the latest Gallup poll, and 58% disapprove. When asked who deserves credit for the economy, many Americans do not give the president the credit he craves.
Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that overwhelming majorities of black and Latino Americans have negative views of Trump’s performance: 87% of black Americans and 72% of Latino Americans disapprove. Among white Americans, 51% disapprove and 43% approve.
Trump takes the dais in the House chamber with another disadvantage: Few presidents have come to the Capitol embroiled in such threatening controversy so early in their terms.
President Clinton delivered his fifth State of the Union address in January 1998, days after news broke of his affair with a White House intern. The next year, he spoke a month after a Republican-controlled House had impeached him and amid his trial in the Senate, which later would acquit him. Clinton made no reference to his impeachment.
President Nixon took a different, defiant tack when he addressed Congress in January 1974, well into the Watergate investigation.
“One year of Watergate is enough,” Nixon said from his Capitol stage, suggesting he had complied with the investigation and needed to be free to address “great and serious problems” facing the country. Though his approval rating had dropped to 26%, Nixon said he had “no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job.” He resigned six months later.
In keeping with tradition dating to President Reagan, the White House has invited guests to sit in the House gallery with First Lady Melania Trump. Each of them representing some aspect of Trump’s message — benefits of the GOP tax cuts for workers, gang violence linked to illegal immigration, the bravery of those who saved lives during hurricane and fire disasters, anti-drug efforts and the sacrifice of troops overseas.
Melania Trump herself will be a much-anticipated presence. She has been absent from public view since news broke related to her husband’s alleged affair with a porn star.