When Donald Trump steps to the podium before a joint session of Congress tonight, he will deliver his first major presidential address since his inauguration, when he memorably invoked the idea of “American carnage.” He will appear before a Congress and a country that is rife with unease and anxiety. Congress is filled with Republicans concerned about Trump’s penchant for chaotic leadership and Democrats swept up by an organic resistance to a president whom many of them regard as a threat to democracy.
No one speech makes or breaks a presidency. Nonetheless, an address to a joint session of Congress — Bill Clinton’s 1996 line declaring an end to “the era of big government,” George W. Bush’s 2002 remark that the United States faced an “Axis of Evil” overseas — can reveal clues to a president’s agenda, tone, style and direction.
“All I can do is speak from the heart and say what I want to do,” Trump told “Fox and Friends” Tuesday morning, adding that he hoped to improve on his “messaging,” which he rated as only a “C or a C-plus” so far.
Here are five things to listen for in Trump’s remarks.
1. Trump’s legislative program
How committed is Trump to enacting the big-ticket legislation he promised to champion during the campaign? How capable does he seem of steering an agenda through Congress that includes repealing Obamacare, tax reform, and $1 trillion in infrastructure spending? Don’t expect his speech to be peppered with specifics. Still, given his chaotic, generic approach to defining the legislative agenda thus far, his supporters will probably look for clues to how he intends to enact these mammoth policy projects. Because he only has approximately 16 months in which to pass his biggest legislative items before the 2018 midterms start to interfere in earnest — and because Congress by its nature often moves at a glacial pace — Trump needs to give more direction than simply offering Republicans a ‘repeal-and-replace’ slogan and a vow to bring jobs back to the United States. How much detail he provides and how he frames his agenda will demonstrate how serious he is about passing significant legislation.
2. Bashing his critics
How much of Trump’s speech is devoted to taking revenge on the news media, the courts, his Democratic opponents and millions of American protesters? Former President Barack Obama occasionally took mild potshots at critics during his congressional addresses, chastising the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision and warning Republican obstructionists that he had “a pen” and “a phone” that would be put to use to circumvent a paralyzed legislature. But most presidents from Reagan to Obama have treated these speeches as occasions to look and sound presidential, something Trump hasn’t yet managed, in the eyes of a majority of Americans.
Past presidents have articulated a vision rooted in a policy agenda and a definition of national identity, and they have invoked the nation’s resilience, strength, charity or social and economic progress. So it’s worth watching whether Trump will revisit his inaugural theme that America is a lawless land governed by perfidious elites who prospered while ordinary citizens suffered. Or will Trump pin the blame for America’s problems on “so-called” judges or the news media (“the enemy of the American people”) or politicians such as John McCain (Trump recently tweeted that McCain has been “losing so long”) or the Washington, D.C., swamp (where Trump is now firmly entrenched)?
3. Hitting the mute button on hate
Whether or not Trump mentions hate crimes (such as the recent fatal shooting of an Indian couple in a Kansas bar) and the spike in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant incidents and rhetoric should be fair game for judging his speech. Presidents from myriad ideologies and both parties have used the congressional address to speak out on their own terms in opposition to hate and in defense of democracy. Will Trump imbibe that fundamentally democratic tradition? If Trump ignores this elephant in the room, his silence will speak volumes. Ignoring issues of tolerance, rights and individual dignity will likely serve to embolden the forces of racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism, and it will lend credence to the criticism that he and his associates have helped unleash them.
Viewers also should listen for any cues in his address that might serve to lure Democrats or recalcitrant Republicans into backing him on a discrete issue like infrastructure or trade. More pointedly, will Trump’s speech give any olive branches to his critics in Congress, the media or the public? His tone matters just as much as the speech’s content, and so does the reaction in the chamber from the newly energized resistance. Look for how Democratic members of Congress react to Trump’s speech: Do they boo the president in the House chamber? Do they grudgingly clap if Trump mentions his support for infrastructure investments? How do the “real people” in the chamber invited by Democrats react if Trump mentions his executive actions that have targeted undocumented immigrants and Muslim travelers and refugees? The narrative of the resistance is now being written, and that storyline will arguably be as influential in what happens next in politics and society as the White House narrative that Trump’s aides are hoping his speech burnishes. In brief, how does the resistance manifest itself during Trump’s address?
5. Chaos vs. control
Finally, there’s the issue of whether his speech is chaotic or smooth, discombobulated or rational, fact-less or reality-based? Does his speech become a vehicle for espousing “alternative facts” that Trump and his aides Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller have not infrequently concocted out of thin air? Does his address demonstrate a flash of discipline that hews to his brand of populist nationalism without making a mockery of the truth? How does Trump react if he is booed by Democrats in the hall? If there are protestors outside, does he rip into them, as if he were on the campaign trail? Or does he stay focused on his message of bringing back robust economic growth and manufacturing jobs, renegotiating trade deals and cracking down on crime and immigration?
These five issues to listen for are more than just the idle chatter about parlor intrigue that comes with the start of any new administration. These questions are likely to consume a significant portion of Trump’s presidency. Is the chaos and division that has been featured in Trump’s early weeks in office a permanent feature of his White House? We will know more by the end of his speech on Tuesday.
Matthew Dallek, associate professor at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management, is the author of Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security
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