Trump will tout economic strength and border security as he faces an audience with an unprecedented number of women and high degree of skepticism
David Smith in Washington
Donald Trump will promise: ‘We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions’, the White House previewed. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump will attempt to reboot his presidency on Tuesday with a State of the Union address that will tout economic strength and border security – but he will face an audience with an unprecedented number of women and a high degree of scepticism.
Halfway into his term, having just endured a drubbing in November’s congressional elections and after prompting the longest government shutdown in US history, Trump will seek to regain momentum by calling on Congress to come together on infrastructure projects and his trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
He will promise, “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions,” the White House previewed.
The president will command one of the biggest stages in American politics but, unlike last year’s address, Capitol Hill will be something of a hostile environment. Along with Vice-President Mike Pence, the Democratic speaker, Nancy Pelosi – a formidable adversary who has thwarted his border wall at every turn – will sit just over his shoulder on the dais, her facial expressions watched closely by millions of primetime TV viewers.
Seated in front of Trump will be a record number of female House members, most Democrats and some dressed in white, in homage to the suffragist movement. In the gallery overhead there will be two former employees of Trump’s New Jersey golf club, both immigrant women who have gone public about its hiring practices.
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said during a recent panel discussion at the thinktank: “The State of the Union involves ritualised shows of chumminess from the time the president walks in and everybody gives a sort of demonstrative standing ovation, despite what they may be muttering under their breath. [Pelosi’s] won and he has to walk in there and he has to hug her, give a warm handshake at a minimum …
“Everybody will be noticing when she does clap and when she doesn’t clap. Everybody will be noticing these little things that she does.”
Trump made his debut in the House with an address to a joint session of Congress two years ago. In contrast to his roistering campaign rallies, he struck a sombre tone as he honoured the widow of a dead Navy Seal, prompting the Democratic pundit Van Jones to declare grandiloquently on CNN: “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.”
A year later, Trump gave his first formal State of the Union address, a full hour and 20 minutes that stressed unity and earned rapturous applause from Republicans. But the midterms changed the balance: while the Senate majority Republicans will be out in force, Trump will be reminded that Democrats swept the House, with a record number of women, whose appreciation is likely to be muted.
Cameras are bound to focus on new congresswomen such as Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who recently promised “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!”, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to see whether they clap any of Trump’s lines or attempt some type of protest. The public gallery will also include, at Democrats’ invitation, federal workers who went without pay for 35 days and are worried about a repeat.
The partial government shutdown, triggered by political stalemate over Trump’s $5.7bn demand for the wall, also led to the postponement of the State of the Union by a week – the first time that had happened since the Challenger space shuttle disaster delayed Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1986. Despite that context, and the looming threat of another shutdown or national emergency if congressional negotiators do not strike a compromise by mid-February, Trump is likely to begin by reeling off accomplishments.
Wittes, who is also editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, said: “The first part of the State of the Union address is always a victory lap. Even if you’re in the trough of a recession, the president says the State of the Union is better than it looks, and then trots out 25 minutes of positive talking points about the things the administration has done.”
However, dark claims about MS-13 seem inevitable at some point thanks to one of the speechwriters, immigration hardliner Stephen Miller, in an attempt to throw down the gauntlet to Pelosi. But going in too aggressively carries risks, with young Democrats newly emboldened and even some Republicans becoming restless. Only last week the Senate rebuked him over troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan.
Bill Whalen, who was chief speechwriter for the former California governor Pete Wilson and responsible for his annual state of the state address, said: “There is uncertainty over interruptions by Democrats. We have plenty of faces of resistance but will we get a voice of resistance through heckling? The second question is, how unified are the Republicans? It’s a tricky time for him to be in front of them.”
Whalen, now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution thinktank in Palo Alto, California, added: “The State of the Union has become a very sad spectacle. We’re much more interested in the drama, the theatrics, what people are wearing. It’s like an awards show. We don’t pay much attention to the substance.”