President Donald Trump plans to set aside his fire-and-fury rhetoric to deliver a conciliatory message in his first State of the Union address, using the televised speech to reach voters beyond his base in an election year marked by intense polarization and a troubled electoral map for Republicans.
Early versions of Trump's speech indicate the president, facing an in-house congressional audience grimly divided along ideological lines, will adopt a unifying tone with the theme of a “safe, strong and proud America.” The approach marks an attempt to shift the national conversation from Trump's dismal public approval ratings, an election year that threatens Republican control of Congress and a White House consumed by an investigation into Russian campaign meddling.
Trump will tally a year of notable accomplishments that have been overshadowed by scandals, investigations and his own quick temper. And he’ll offer a legislative agenda to appeal to Republicans and Democrats, including an ambitious infrastructure package, common ground on immigration reform and an America-first trade policy, a senior administration official told reporters.
“The tone will be one of bipartisanship and will be very forward-looking,” the official said. “It will be an attractive message.”
The bar for success is low. A year ago, a newly elected Trump calmed an anxious electorate and won praise from some Democrats when he addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time after a volatile and ugly campaign. He was calm, controlled, compassionate — and even to some skeptics, he was presidential. Trump, obsessed with media coverage of his presidency, loved the adulation.
His challenge Tuesday night will be to deliver a repeat performance to a more skeptical national audience that has now experienced a year of Trump's America.
To put it simply, “he has to be normal,” said Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary to President George W. Bush. “People knew he was 100 percent different from every politician who came before, but they thought he could go to Washington and get things done. He’s entering the must-get-things-done part of his presidency and a big part of that can be driven by a State of the Union speech that’s normal and gets bipartisan support.”
Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and staff secretary Rob Porter took the lead writing the speech. Trump has been poring over drafts in recent days, making handwritten edits with a black marker and requesting rewrites of key sections, another White House official told POLITICO.
The president's speechwriters completed a full draft of the speech last week, but it is still being edited and tweaked, with Cabinet secretaries and senior White House aides reviewing and offering suggestions. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have offered feedback on the national security portion of the speech, the White House official said.
Trump will continue to review the speech through the weekend and into next week. White House aides are also planning practice sessions on Monday and Tuesday in which the president will read the address off a teleprompter while standing at a podium, an effort to replicate the conditions in the House chamber.
The White House was scheduled to brief surrogates about the speech on Saturday afternoon and distribute taking points.
In the days and weeks after the address, Trump is expected to hit the road to amplify his message, giving several speeches around the country. Officials said the plans are still in flux.
In big, tightly choreographed moments, Trump can be persuasive and likable. But it’s the brash New Yorker who gets the administration into trouble. If he sticks to the script Tuesday, America will see the upbeat outsider from last February and the head of state who made nice with global leaders in Davos this past week. Absent will be the culture warrior who whips up political rallies and used his inaugural speech to confront “American carnage.”
“We’ve never seen a president like this before. It’s different,” said retired Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican and fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “Half of America likes what he’s doing. They don’t like him, necessarily, but they like what he’s doing. He’s got to talk to all Americans. He’s got to explain what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.”
Staying on message is also Trump’s best chance to reach Democratic members of Congress. In the closely divided Senate, he must woo 10 Democrats from states he won comfortably in 2016 if he wants to advance his legislative agenda on immigration and infrastructure. To win their support, he’ll need to up his approval ratings with voters.
“The only way Trump will get things done is if he’s popular, if people turn against the politicians and say, 'do what Trump does,'” Fleischer said. “If he remains a president that solely represents his base, it will severely limit his ability to get anything done in Congress. If he gives a unifying speech and talks about things that elevate us, not divide us, he has a chance to move voters into his camp.”
It’s so rare for Trump to strike a presidential tone that it’s noteworthy when he does, said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. For this speech in particular, it will be more important for him to stay on message.
“People were willing to give the benefit of the doubt last year because he was an unconventional president,” Galston said. “He’s fallen short. People are even more fed up with gridlock and hyper-partisanship now than they were when he took office.”
Trump will tout his signature legislative win as the “biggest tax cut and reform in American history,” said the administration official outlining the speech. He’ll emphasize his ongoing deregulatory agenda, the strength of the U.S. economy and a stock market that had its best year since Franklin Roosevelt.
“People will be reminded and in some cases surprised by how much President Trump has accomplished in his first year,” the administration official said.
His second-year agenda will focus on a $200 billion federal infrastructure spending package that could generate up to $1.8 trillion in total spending on roads, bridges, transit and other projects. The White House is planning to release a more detailed infrastructure plan in the weeks after the speech.
Immigration will be another major theme, with Trump using his pulpit to pressure Congress toward compromise on a plan to strengthen border protection, limit future immigration and give 1.8 million undocumented young immigrants —
s — legal residency and a path to citizenship. That’s more than twice the number of Dreamers currently protected under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA.
He’s likely to accuse Democrats of playing politics on immigration amid growing opposition to a proposal put forward by the White House Thursday. Democrats, in turn, have invited dozens of Dreamers to watch the speech from the House gallery, a reminder of the human cost of not reaching a deal.
He’ll emphasize “fair and reciprocal” trade policy and reiterate his support for mutually beneficial bilateral trade deals while blasting abuses that take advantage of the U.S. economy and harm American workers. The administration official said the message on trade would be similar to one delivered in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
He’ll address the nuclear threat from North Korea and emphasize a national security policy of “peace through strength,” the official said.
The president, who has been criticized for failing to follow through on promises to fight opioid addiction, will have a guest in the House gallery affected by drug addiction.
“Anything he can do to send a signal that he would like 2018 to be different — more collaborative and more open to the kind of compromise that gets the people's business done — would be in his interest,” Galston said.