Trump looks to refocus presidency in address to Congress
President expected to promise a message of American strength
February 28, 2017 12:00 AM
Alex Brando/Associated Press
President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md. on Feb. 24.
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
President Donald Trump speaks about budget policy Monday during a meeting of National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — He delivered a gracious victory speech, a doom-and-gloom inaugural address, a reverent Supreme Court nomination speech, a fiery rallying cry in Florida, a bizarre commentary on Black History Month, and an anti-media rant Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in D.C.
President Donald Trump’s disparate approaches make it hard to predict the tone and content of his address to Congress Tuesday — his biggest prime-time speech since taking office.
In a meeting with the nation’s governors Monday he signaled he will discuss his plans to replace the Affordable Care Act, increase military spending, cut spending in other areas, rebuild the infrastructure, expedite approvals for new projects and deport violent criminals.
He told the governors that the speech will be a landmark event and a message to the world about America’s strength and resolve. In it, he will discuss his forthcoming budget that increases spending for defense and law enforcement while making cuts in other areas through unspecified savings and efficiencies.
“This budget is a public-safety and national-security budget,” he said.
President Donald Trump speaks to a meeting of the National Governors Association on Monday at the White House. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
Lawmakers will be looking to him to provide more detail than he has in any of his past speeches, which presented a sweeping vision to move America in a new direction, but charted no course for steering it there.
“Generalities can only go on for so long. He’s going to have to get down to the nitty-gritty on specifics. There’s so much uncertainty on things like the border tax and immigration reform. People are going to be looking for some cues on what he’s proposing in content and timeframe,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan and co-author of the new book “The President of the United States: Addresses to a Joint Session of Congress.”
Political scientist G. Terry Madonna said the president’s first speech to a joint session of Congress will be his chance to lay out his agenda and motivate lawmakers to move toward his vision.
But, he allowed, anything is possible.
“If one word describes his speeches it’s ‘unpredictable,’” said Mr. Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College. “But I do think we’ll get some specifics."
Each side of the aisle will be looking for something different in Mr. Trump’s address, said historian James Broussard, director of the Center for Political History at Lebanon Valley College.
“The Republicans are going to be looking to hear that his ideas are closely enough correlated with theirs that they won’t have any serious problems accommodating what he’d like to do. They’ll probably also be looking for indications that he’s flexible enough to not dig his heals in, because they don’t want their first big fight to be an intra-party fight,” he said.
“If I were a Democratic congressman I’d be hoping to hear the usual Donald Trump that gets up there and defiles the presidency by acting like an ego-driven candidate, and if I were a Republican congressman I’d be hoping to see the presidential side of him appear,” Mr. Broussard said.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., center, listens during President Barack Obama's speech on health care to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in 2009. During the address, Mr. Wilson shouted, "You lie!" (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
The speech is a chance for Mr. Trump to woo moderate Democrats from red states, who could be key to moving his Supreme Court nominee and healthcare agenda through a hyper-partisan Congress.
Mr. Trump’s thin skin could get in the way if he allows detractors to pull him off message. He won’t be able to ignore it if someone shouts “You lie!” as U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., did during President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, or if someone mouths “not true” as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito did in 2010.
“If it gets provocative, the one thing we know about Trump is he will respond. He doesn’t take criticism lightly, and he has enough arrows in the quiver so that if it gets boisterous and raucous he’s quite capable of responding in kind,” Mr. Madonna said.
Provocateurs could win some political points from liberal constituents, but their remarks also could backfire.
“If he shouts down a heckler, that could be a show of strength. Think of the debates. He’s not the best when he’s on the offense, but he is a great counterpuncher,” Mr. Kall said. “Trump is at his best when he has an adversary. Now that Hillary Clinton is no longer around he needs an opponent, and to the extent one exists in this venue, that can help him.”
Academics say they will be looking to see whether this address becomes the pivot point that many have been waiting for — a moment when Mr. Trump transitions from pugilistic candidate to adroit leader.
“A speech that knocks it out of the park would provide him some much needed momentum and some positive news cycles at a time when Congress is just coming back from recess and getting back to the business of governing,” Mr. Kall said. “It’s a really ripe opportunity for a speech to provide the momentum that’s needed for the president’s legislative agenda.”
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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