The Memo: After rough January, Trump seeks rebound with big speech

The Memo: After rough January, Trump seeks rebound with big speech
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE will deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday at one of the most vulnerable moments of his presidency — and supporters and detractors alike are skeptical he can turn things around.

The problem, they say, is that opinions of Trump have become even more deeply entrenched, both for and against, since the partial government shutdown. It will be very tough to shift them, even amid the pomp and circumstance of the annual event.

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“Voter opinions of Trump are locked in, and there is very little room for movement there,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee (RNC).

The nation’s polarized atmosphere will also drive responses to the speech.

“He could give a Franklin Delano Roosevelt-type inspirational speech, and the Democrats would say it was horrible and the Republicans would say it was wonderful,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “The response is baked in before he even gets up there.”

But if the State of the Union ends up not nudging the political dynamics in any meaningful way, that will be bad news for Trump.

The president suffered a serious political setback — a self-inflicted wound, in the eyes of his critics — during the 35-day shutdown in December and January. The episode raised questions even in the minds of his loyal base as to whether he will ever build the wall that he promised at almost every stop of his 2016 campaign. 

The president, whose political appeal rests in part on his assertions of machismo and deal-making prowess, also found himself bested by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Pelosi accuses Barr of 'single-minded effort' to protect Trump against Mueller report Dems attack Barr's credibility after report of White House briefings on Mueller findings MORE (D-Calif.). The shutdown has pushed Trump’s job approval ratings down. In the RealClearPolitics polling average on Monday afternoon, he was at 41.2 percent approval and 55.5 percent disapproval. The differential — negative 14.3 points — is the largest it has been in almost a year.

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, contended that the shutdown had damaged Trump, though he also noted that the president’s poll numbers move within an unusually narrow range.

“It’s made it much more difficult for him to reach out beyond his core base,” Lichtman said. “Forget about Democrats — they are never going to come around — but he has taken a hit among independents.”

Even the timing of this year’s address is testament to Trump’s troubles. Originally scheduled for Jan. 29, it was put back after Pelosi pushed the president to postpone it until the shutdown was resolved. She will be sitting behind him as Speaker for the first time as he delivers the speech, a potent visual reminder of the realities of the divided government which make it hard for Trump to accomplish any of his legislative goals.

“Now that we have a Democratic House, their goal is to elect someone to take President Trump’s place,” said GOP consultant Ron Bonjean. “It’s not in the Democrats’ best interests to have Trump’s legislation signed into law.”

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The White House has indicated that Trump will nonetheless seek to make some overtures to Democrats — and will issue a broader call to compromise — in this year’s address. A senior administration official on Friday told reporters that Trump would “encourage Congress to reject the politics of resistance and retribution, and instead adopt a spirit of cooperation and compromise so we can achieve it.”

The same official also shared one line of Trump’s speech draft which is to see him assert, “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions.”

Whether that will actually happen is a very different matter. But some observers believe Trump might get some measure of credit for at least appearing to try.

“What I think he needs to do is show that he is being reasonable with his requests,” said Berkovitz. “Show that he is thinking about this, and saying, ‘Yes, this is what I want and here are calm reasons why.’ That is not going to change anyone’s mind right there and then, but at least it would have the aura of sensible.”

In terms of the substance, administration officials have said that Trump’s speech will focus on five areas: immigration, trade, infrastructure, health care and drug pricing, and foreign policy. 

As ever with Trump, there will be the potential for surprises on the night.

Among the points of interest are how vigorously he will lambaste Democrats; whether he will address the controversy swirling around Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D); and how seriously he will threaten a second government shutdown if no deal is worked out before Feb. 15, when the current stopgap spending measure runs out.

Some Republicans argue that it is important not to count Trump out prematurely, as has happened so many times before.

Referring to his 2020 reelection hopes, Heye, the former RNC communications director, said, “The country is obviously very polarized, and I think, certainly, his map looks narrower this time than last time. But if you look at President Reagan’s numbers, they were worse than Trump’s, and he did fine.”

On the other side of the political divide, however, the assertions that Trump is increasingly politically impotent are growing louder.

“There will be no wall. There will be no national emergency — or, if there is, he will be in front of the Supreme Court,” said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “He has no capacity to do anything he is talking about.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.