Immigration and Infrastructure in State of Union, if Trump Follows Script
Posted January 27, 2018 3:58 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spent his first year in office breaking every rule of presidential communication, conducting policymaking and diplomacy by Twitter and eschewing the careful, subdued tones of most presidents in favor of no-holds-barred attacks on his adversaries and allies alike.
But Tuesday, Trump will embrace the most traditional of presidential venues — appearing before a joint session of Congress for his first State of the Union address — to deliver what aides describe as an optimistic speech that will seek to reach beyond the people who voted for him in 2016.
If he sticks to the script, the president is expected to call on Congress to spend at least $1 trillion to rebuild bridges, freeways, sewers and airports. And he will use the speech to lobby millions of viewers on behalf of his plan to make a series of conservative changes to the nation’s immigration system while also granting citizenship to as many as 1.8 million young immigrants.
But if his first year has proved anything, it is that there are no guarantees when Trump faces a television camera. Cabinet meetings have veered into presidential rants. Memorial speeches have turned into self-congratulatory moments. Short photo ops have become long news conferences.
“Teleprompter Trump sounds like a regular president,” said Michael Waldman, who was director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1999 and wrote four State of the Union speeches. “Off-the-Teleprompter Trump sounds like a fill-in radio talk show host.”
When Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, in February — not technically a State of the Union speech — he offered a mostly optimistic vision of America, speaking soberly and almost verbatim from a prepared text.
But former speechwriters said traditional State of the Union speeches were a poor fit for Trump because they tended to be long lists of policy proposals, cobbled together over months in a process that involves agency employees across the federal government. During his first year, the president showed only a sporadic interest in the nuts and bolts of policymaking.
Jonathan Horn, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said Trump’s Twitter habit could undermine the political benefits of the speech. Hovering over the address is an accelerating Russia investigation and a congressional stalemate over spending.
“The next day there could be a tweet, and then the work on a very, very long speech is overshadowed by 280 characters,” said Horn, who was part of a team that drafted Bush’s 2008 State of the Union address.
Other presidents have sought to maximize the political benefits of the vast State of the Union audience — 48 million people watched President Barack Obama deliver his first address, in 2010 — by holding events across the country in the days after the speech. White House officials declined this past week to say whether Trump would do the same.
Trump’s address could be a crucial moment in the debate over his immigration plan, which has been condemned by both sides since it was delivered to Congress on Thursday.
Immigrant advocates have called the proposal — which would end decades of family-based migration policies and bring a vast crackdown on immigrants living in the country illegally — a cruel plan to shut the country’s borders. Critics, latching on to the proposal to pave the way for citizenship for “Dreamers,” have derided it as amnesty for lawbreakers.
Tuesday’s address will be an opportunity for Trump — and Stephen Miller, his chief speechwriter and the architect of the White House immigration plan — to respond to critics.
Senior White House officials said the president would spend a significant amount of time in the speech reminding viewers how much his administration has accomplished since he first promised to challenge the establishment and confront what he called “this American carnage.” In doing so, he will rebut criticism that his first year was light on major legislative accomplishments, despite having a Republican Congress.
As he has repeatedly done before, Trump will point to record stock market highs, his deregulatory agenda, the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut, the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and a record-low unemployment rate. Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he hoped Trump would offer a vision for how the country could build upon his successes to seek more growth and opportunity.
Part of that, Bradley said, should be a forceful case for infrastructure spending, including a dedicated revenue source like an increase in the federal gasoline tax to fund transportation improvements.
“We’ve been patching over the problems in that system,” Bradley said. He said public-private partnerships, like the ones the administration has considered, can save money for taxpayers, but he added, “If we really want to rebuild our infrastructure and modernize, we can’t keep patching it over, and we can’t do it on the cheap.”
Trump is also likely to call for more efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. But aides declined to say whether Trump would talk about health care in the speech, a subject of debate among administration officials for weeks.
The White House is proud of the fact that Republicans were able to repeal even a small part of the Affordable Care Act — the penalties for people who go without health insurance. The president could take credit for that and for regulatory efforts to dismantle other parts of the law that Republicans dislike. But his party appears far away from its yearslong goal of doing away with the law entirely.
It is also unclear what Trump might say about the high cost of many prescription drugs. Trump said last year that drug companies were “getting away with murder,” but he has not taken many steps to solve the problem.
Consumer advocates and employers, who pay the bills for drug coverage, are hoping to hear more from the president, who could at least point to the work of the Food and Drug Administration to speed the approval of lower-cost generic drugs.
On national security, Trump’s aides said the president would make his case for a bigger military, more secure borders and fair trade, which critics say is a euphemism for protectionist policies.
Trump can point to seminal policy shifts, like his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as evidence of his global impact. But it is less clear how the president will address challenges like the nuclear threat from North Korea and the Iran nuclear agreement, which he has thrown to Congress with a threat to tear it up if lawmakers fail to tighten its terms.
“The president should highlight success,” said Elliott Abrams, who served in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.
In addition to Jerusalem, Abrams checked off the administration’s decision to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, its imposition of harsh sanctions on North Korea and Trump’s criticism of NATO, which he said had prodded members to spend more on their militaries.
Trump, he said, also needed to “analyze frankly the greatest threats to the United States from opponents,” which the administration has done in the National Security Strategy it issued last month. It listed China and Russia as the nation’s biggest geopolitical foes.
“There’s an opportunity to explain his thinking on policies that people are concerned about,” said James Jay Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, who worked on Trump’s transition. “These guys have cranked out a lot of policy.” For lawmakers, the Iran deal is a particular source of concern. This month, Trump gave Congress and European allies 120 days to overhaul the terms of the agreement or, he warned, he would nullify it. There are wide gaps between Democrats and Republicans on the issue and little sign yet that they can bridge them by Trump’s deadline.
Carafano said he did not expect Trump to outline a new approach to foreign policy that goes beyond the “America First” credo he articulated during the campaign. But he said the president might elaborate on his distinctive view of globalism — one that places heavy emphasis on a world of sovereign, strong and independent states.
“You might see him focus on the ‘peace through strength’ theme and call on Congress to support spending for the military,” he said.
Cody Keenan, the chief speechwriter for Obama during his second term, said he would be watching to see whether Trump tries to speak to people who might not have supported him during the campaign, after a year in which the president’s actions have seemed focused more on shoring up his base than courting new backers.
“Is there any sense that he wants to speak to people who didn’t vote for him?” Keenan asked.
“Spoiler alert, he’s going to look presidential,” Keenan added. “That’s the most presidential thing that a president does, with all the pomp and circumstance. The question is, will what he says be presidential?”