Watch as President Donald Trump gives the first State of the Union Address of his presidency.
Ashley Parker and Michael Scherer, the Washington Post
WASHINGTON - Every now and again, President Trump chooses to embrace the office of the presidency, with all its pomp and power, if only to prove that he can.
The moments rarely last long, but they are notable when they arrive - at an international gathering in Switzerland, during a Medal of Honor ceremony or in an address to a joint session of Congress.
Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday night will be one such moment, according to White House aides who have been touting his preparations and message. They say he will deliver a unifying speech of American values and patriotism, one that touches on everything from the just-passed Republican tax plan and the new immigration proposal to trade, infrastructure and national security.
The question is whether the swirl of conflict and diversion that has monopolized so much of his first year in office will distract from the message he is trying to deliver.
After a year as president, Trump has proven himself capable of reading words from a teleprompter. The former reality TV star can summon a performance to rival that of Martin Sheen as the aspirational President Jed Bartlet on “The West Wing” when he chooses.
What is less clear, however, is if he has the ability - or even the interest - to turn his well-delivered words into actual, tangible results, without self-sabotaging or undermining his and his team’s best intentions.
“There’s no question that President Trump can deliver a speech,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist. “The question is whether he has the discipline to turn his words into policies that help the American people - and when he’ll set off another counterproductive Twitter firestorm about something like Russia, the NFL, or Bruno Mars at the Grammys.”
Like the campaign that elected him, Trump’s time in office has been built around the idea that what the nation needs now is a citizen-leader, not another politician, and that his primary role is one of disruption.
“It’s so easy to act presidential, but that’s not going to get it done,” Trump said at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in July.
Yet one of the reasons Trump is able to credibly elevate both his rhetoric and the stature of his office on certain, pre-scripted occasions is because he has a willing audience desperate to believe.
Congressional Republicans, for instance, are so worried privately about the impetuous leader of their party that they cling to any grain of normalcy - repeating it like a mantra to reassure themselves that Trump is, in fact, able to rise to the occasion of commander in chief.
Many Trump supporters, too, say they wish he wouldn’t tweet quite as much or would act more “presidential.” And even many Democrats yearn for a return to normalcy of sorts, where a reported $130,000 payoff to a porn star who allegedly had an affair with Trump - a surefire scandal in any other administration - does not get dismissed as a C-list sideshow.
Much of the public seems to anticipate these fleeting moments where Trump seems to understand and channel the gravity and import of the presidency, and plays the role of a traditional leader.
The problem, however, is that Trump so far has proven himself less a method actor than one able to briefly inhabit a role, before slipping back into his more comfortable self.
His policy positions are often only temporary notions, his calls for unity and bipartisan cooperation can be contradicted in the same day, and his ideological vision is often undermined by the laws that he ultimately signs. The facts he uses to defend his positions also regularly prove to be false.
And none of this lends itself to the traditional role of the State of the Union, which voters, legislators and foreign governments look to as a guide to the nation’s political agenda.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said that because the State of the Union is a constitutionally mandated address to Congress, the level of expectation is greater. Most presidents use the occasion to not just outline their goals and promises, but also follow through on them in the coming months with detailed policies, plans and initiatives.
“Has the White House done the level of work that is required to do that?” Jamieson asked. “If it hasn’t, then we’ve seen a revolution in the way the president treats this address and his relationship with the Congress. If the president says, ‘I want these four things,’ and then he doesn’t follow up with specifics, it then throws the ball to Congress.”
Trump has demonstrated that he can play the role when necessary.
He delivered a well-received address before a joint session of Congress last February that hit upon many of the traditional tropes of the office. He began by praising Black History month and denouncing threats at Jewish community centers. He painted a soaring vision of American renewal and economic optimism. And he laid out a series of carefully fact-checked arguments for his big policy pushes - for a tax overhaul, trade policy and infrastructure spending.
“If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” he said at one point about his plans for immigration.
Immediately after the address, in which Trump also honored the widow of a slain Navy SEAL - a moving moment that led to a sustained standing ovation - Van Jones, a liberal commentator on CNN, declared, “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.”
But within days, Trump’s unifying message was a distant memory. He accused former president Barack Obama of having Trump’s “wires tapped” in Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign without evidence. The FBI director later said there was “no information” to support Trump’s accusation.
“The real problem is that people just do not listen to his words and treat them with the seriousness that they afford other presidents,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “He has been on so many sides of so many issues that even if it is a good speech, people will figure that it is not going to last long.”
Republican leaders in Congress have nonetheless encouraged and embraced the idea that Trump will stick to a broadly palatable script Tuesday night. Republican polls in many key swing districts show the president continues to poll below GOP incumbent members of Congress.
That is not the only concern in a midterm election year that typically hinges on the popularity of the president. In 2017 elections in Alabama, Virginia and the suburbs of New York and Philadelphia, concern about the president’s behavior proved to be a drag for Republican candidates by turning off suburban voters and driving Democratic turnout.
Republicans are hopeful Trump can be convinced to focus his messaging on selling GOP tax cuts as a boon to the middle class over the coming months. “Success in the midterm hinges on selling the tax bill to the American people,” said one senior Republican strategist. “To do that successfully, we need the president and the White House making the case every day instead of every sixth day.”
On Tuesday night before Congress would be a good place for Trump to start. In the pecking order of public presidential events, the State of the Union remains perhaps the most powerful platforms, usually attracting between 30 million and 50 million television viewers, including a broad cross-section of Americans who do not follow day-to-day politics.
“All the pundits Tuesday are going to say he looked presidential,” said Cody Keenan, a former chief speechwriter for Obama. “Well, spoiler alert, it’s the most presidential thing a president does.”