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3 Things to Watch For at the State of the Union

Reading the Trump tea leaves.
February 5, 2019
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(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It’s been a long, hard road, but, friends, we finally made it: It’s State of the Union day. After weeks of mounting anticipation—coupled with a tragic delay as President Trump and Nancy Pelosi squabbled over the erstwhile government shutdown—it’s finally time to strap in for the Super Bowl of national politics, a presidential speech that, for pomp, melodrama, and a total lack of subtlety or irony, is always guaranteed to put the Big Game to shame.

This year’s address comes at a fraught moment for President Trump, who is trying to navigate what friend and foe alike agree is likely his final opportunity to deliver on a central campaign promise: a big, beautiful wall on the U.S.-Mexico border paid for by Mexico. A month-long government shutdown failed to dislodge Democratic lawmakers from their insistence that Trump would get his wall over their dead bodies. Now, in his annual address to the nation, the president will lay out what comes next. If you watch, here’s what to watch for.

(1) The Immigration Plan

There are two major ways Trump could take his immigration rhetoric during his speech. First, he could simply stay the course: Make a grand case for border security compromise directly to the American people, laying out the immigration concessions he is willing to offer Democrats in exchange for wall funding. His administration already made some moves in this direction during the shutdown, slashing their target wall funding amount—and even backing away from the notion of a mammoth concrete wall in favor of more traditional bollard-style barriers—and offering new short-term protections for former recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The major problem with this strategy is that it’s already been tried. During the shutdown, the White House scheduled an impromptu primetime presidential address in the hopes of ginning up public support for their package. But 60 percent of voters still oppose major new wall construction, according to a Gallup poll released Monday—up from 57 percent last June. With numbers like that, it’s not hard to see why Democrats were happy to wait Trump out during the shutdown and it’s hard to see them doing anything different this time around.

Which leaves Plan B: the national emergency declaration Trump’s been teasing for about a month. If Trump were to proclaim a national emergency on the southern border, he would be able to claim emergency powers to build the wall with unallocated defense funds. But this strategy carries both legal risk—the White House would be forced to fend off legal challenges to this novel use of the president’s emergency powers—and political peril. As I wrote last month, Congress has the power to overrule presidential emergency declarations: Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi would no doubt relish the chance to put every congressional Republican on the record either against Trump or against their supposed small-government principles.

Is Trump willing to take the risk? We’ll know more after his speech.

(2) An Economic Victory Lap (and plans for the future)

Immigration is sure to loom large in the speech. But given that it’s an issue where Trump currently holds a comparatively weak hand, he’ll be best served by getting through it quickly and focusing on his administration’s greatest concrete success: the strong U.S. economy.

Through his first two years in office, Trump has received a major boost due to generally strong economic numbers. Markets have climbed, businesses have created new jobs, the economy has grown at a blistering pace, and median household income has risen.

Trump can’t realistically take credit for all of this, of course. But don’t expect that to stop him from doing it anyway. Because with the GOP no longer in full control of Congress, we’re unlikely to see the White House champion any big economic legislation this year. But the administration doesn’t need Nancy Pelosi’s permission to carry on with regulatory reform, so look for Trump to lean into that in his speech.

The economic forecast isn’t all roses. Consumer confidence took a hit last month during the protracted shutdown. And the administration’s ongoing trade dispute with China continues to cause major damage in certain sectors, especially agriculture. It will be interesting to see if Trump mentions the trade war and how easy it is proving to win it.

(3) A Bipartisan President?

Remember the goofy carrot-and-stick way much of the media covered Trump in the first year of his presidency, shaking their heads dolorously when he ranted on Twitter or in press conferences but heaping plaudits on him when he struck a more measured, bipartisan tone in public addresses, speculating hopefully about a “new, more presidential” Trump? You don’t hear that so much these days—we’re all more or less resigned to the fact that what you see is what you get.

Nevertheless, the State of the Union remains an opportunity for Trump to stake a claim—if only momentarily—as a unifying leader working to advance the interests of all Americans. To that end, look for the president to highlight last year’s big bipartisan achievement: the FIRST STEP Act, the criminal justice reform bill Trump signed into law last December. The White House has invited Matthew Charles, a former drug dealer serving a 35-year sentence who was the first prisoner released under the act this year, to attend the State of the Union as a White House guest.

“While in prison, Matthew found God, completed more than 30 bible studies, became a law clerk, taught GED classes, and mentored fellow inmates,” the White House said in a press release.

If last year’s State of the Union is any indication, tonight’s bipartisan tone is likely to be short-lived: by this weekend, we’ll probably be rehashing old arguments about whether or not Trump was right to call Democrats who weren’t receptive to his applause lines treasonous. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it while it lasts.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.