President Donald Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday will not officially be a State of the Union address, but it will have all of the trappings of one.
And the stakes will be just as high.
“This is the most significant opportunity since Trump became president to begin to forge a leadership role with Congress.”
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Trump will not likely get another stage as grand to make his case directly to the American people before Congress dives into his legislative agenda.
“This is the most significant opportunity since Trump became president to begin to forge a leadership role with Congress,” said Michael Johns, president and executive director of Tea Party Community. “He has to begin to establish himself — as I don’t believe [former President] Obama ever did — as someone who is going to lead on legislation.”
The Trump administration on Monday began sketching out the broad outlines of a budget featuring increased spending on the military and steep cuts to most domestic government agencies. In addition, he has an ambitious agenda that includes repealing the Affordable Care Act and reforming the opaque tax code.
In a speech to a meeting of the National Governors Association on Monday, Trump hinted that he would get specific in his address to Congress.
“Great detail tomorrow night,” he said.
Johns said Trump would be well-advised to not get bogged down on a long series of promises, however. Best to keep the speech focused on Obamacare, tax reform, border security, and defeating ISIS, he said.
“The complete laundry list could potentially detract from the importance of the top priorities,” he said.
Of those priorities, Obamacare should lead the list, The Heritage Foundation expert Rachel Bovard said.
“The first thing he needs to do is tell Congress to repeal Obamacare … There’s only so much he can do,” said Bovard, director of policy services at the conservative think tank.
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Bovard said Congress already has a model to follow — its own vote in 2015 to repeal the health law. It cleared both houses of Congress only to run into an Obama veto.
“It proved it can be done,” she said.
Bovard said Trump should urge lawmakers to pass the same bill — and set an April 8 deadline for them to do so.
She said Trump does not have to insist on a simultaneous replacement. The bill could include a delay on implementation to give Congress time to work out those details, she said. Bovard added that Democrats will never vote to repeal the law; but they might eventually vote in favor of a replacement.
Not only does repealing Obamacare depend on quick action from Congress, Bovard said, but Trump’s tax overhaul cannot happen without it.
“This is a change president,” she said. “Already, he’s making waves with his top line [budget] numbers he’s sending over to agency heads.”
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Johns, the Tea Party leader, said Trump should offer an olive branch to critics on Capitol Hill but also hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire. A veteran of the George H.W. Bush administration, Johns said he saw up close that the opportunity for significant achievement is narrow.
“Each subsequent day becomes more difficult for the president — not easier. So, this is the window,” he said. “Acting sooner as opposed to later is in his interest.”
Candice Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University, said Trump so far has offered few specifics about what should replace Obamacare. She said while he does not need to come to the Capitol with a bill ready to hand out to members of Congress, he should be prepared to set the direction.
“In some ways, it makes sense for Trump to let members of Congress do it. They have more experience at it than he does,” she said. “But there needs to be a road map.”
Stylistically, Nelson said, it would be a good idea for Trump to paint a less stark vision of America and appear more overtly to reach out to the opposition.
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“If he’s going to pivot, this is going to be the place to do it,” she said.
Liz Mair, a Republican strategist who has been a sharp critic of Trump since the Republican primaries, said the president’s speech should be more upbeat than his inaugural address. Harsh rhetoric plays well with his base but turns off other voters, she said.
Mair said it is a “difficult balancing act,” because Trump should not abandon his natural voice.
“He’s got to be a somewhat more charming Trump than, perhaps, what people are used to seeing,” she said.
On substance, Mair said, Trump has more success when he sticks to broad themes. She said voters do not expect him to wade into the weeds of policy details.
“That’s not who they elected,” he said. “They know that.”