By Carlo Versano
When President Trump addresses a joint sessions of Congress on Tuesday night ー the third such event of his presidency ー the most notable deviation from past speeches will be sitting just over his left shoulder.
With Speaker Nancy Pelosi now ruling over a House Democratic majority ー including a boisterous class of progressive freshmen representatives elected in part as a rebuke to the Trump presidency ー the president is likely to strike a more conciliatory tone than he would if the GOP still controlled both houses of Congress.
At least, that's the message from the White House ahead of the State of the Union. Whether Trump sticks to the script or shows any signs that he is willing to compromise on specific policy is another matter, said John Bennett, White House correspondent for Roll Call.
"The House flipping definitely changed the focus of this speech," said Bennett.
But as noted by the Washington Post's Dave Clark, despite the official calls for unity, the president was already sniping on Twitter with Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hours before the address.
It's going to be a tense night, Clark said.
Among the topics high on the president's agenda ー both for its urgency and as a political appeal to his base ー will be the looming appropriations deadline that could determine whether the government shuts down again. Trump has publicly flirted with using his executive authority to declare a national emergency on the southern border in order to build the border wall without approval from Congress. Bennett said he expects him to "walk right to the precipice" of actually announcing it in the speech.
With less than two weeks until the Feb. 15 deadline, President Trump remains in a precarious position: Speaker Pelosi has indicated she is not willing to compromise on the wall, and a national emergency declaration could lead to yet another schism within the Republican party, which fears that it may set a precedent that will come back to haunt them in the next Democratic administration, Bennett said.
Trump could take a different tack altogether, and focus on a big policy proposal that could, at least theoretically, garner bipartisan support, such as prescription drug pricing or an infrastructure bill. Clark mentioned that Trump will announce as a policy goal the end of transmission of the H.I.V. virus, which could get a big applause line.
Of course, most State of the Union addresses are remembered less for the policy nuts and bolts than for the pomp and circumstance (to the extent they are remembered at all). This year, Democrats are expected to wear white (or white ribbons) to shine a spotlight on women's rights issues. And then there are the guests of the president and first lady ー another way the White House has historically made a statement. This year, First Lady Melania Trump will welcome one of the survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the family of a couple killed by an immigrant in the country illegally, and ー perhaps most intriguingly ー a middle-school student who shares a last name with the first family and who has been consequently bullied at school.
The Democrats have chosen Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, to give the official response to the president, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will, as is his custom, give his own rebuttal on social media following Abrams. Expect Abrams to focus on an inspirational message of inclusion over attacking Trump, Clark said.
But it will be the dynamic between Trump and Pelosi ー her facial expressions, applause, and body language visible for the audience to gauge in real time ー that D.C. insiders will be scrutinizing to see if the next two years will produce anything resembling the comity for which the president will likely call.
"There doesn't seem to be any plan to follow up on that," Clark said.