That doesn’t mean the Democratic response, delivered this year by Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.), or one that is planned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Nor is it the flurry of commentary that will follow, as his speech gets digested, picked apart, and fact-checked.
Rather, it is Trump himself who has tended to tweet, improvise or say something in the day or so after a major address that changes the message. Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, noted this at a Washington Post State of the Union preview on Monday, telling the audience that even though the president has plenty of accomplishments, “the problem with President Trump is, it is often of his own making.”
The State of the Union speech is expected to focus on “building a safe, strong, and proud America,” in the words of a senior administration official, touching on the economy, infrastructure, immigration, trade, and national security. “The tone will be one of bipartisanship. It will be very forward-looking,” the official says.
What will be a surprise is if Trump talks at all about Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and, in turn, congressional Republican efforts to respond with their own probe of the government “deep state.” But the ongoing intrigue, unfolding several times during each news day, may be a temptation for Trump to tweet something that changes the subject from the rosy message and, at least among Republicans, enthusiastic response he will probably get from his speech.
So here are five things to look out for on Tuesday night:
— The speech. If Trump follows what he did last year, when he gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, he will largely stick to the TelePrompter — and do well with it. That’s why there is every expectation that Trump will deliver a speech that is aspirational and positive, and will focus heavily on the economy and less so on the discord and division that has marked so much of the past year. The White House sees this as a big chance for Trump to speak to a mass audience “unfiltered” for 60 minutes, an opportunity to try to boost his approval ratings which have sagged in the mid- to upper- 30s. Policy-wise, there are a lot of questions surrounding the details of one of Trump’s major legislative initiatives this year, a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which already is facing a lot of doubt among Democratic mayors and other lawmakers. The most controversial part of his speech is likely to be when he talks about immigration. Trump will pitch the White House plan as offering protection to “Dreamers,” but Democrats hate it because it scales back legal immigration, while some on the far right say it grants amnesty.
— The guests. President Ronald Reagan in 1982 invited Lenny Skutnik to sit in the presidential box during the speech, and then referred to him by name during the State of the Union address. Skutnik saved the life of a woman passenger who had to be rescued from the icy Potomac where an Air Florida flight had crashed. That moment started a tradition of presidents inviting notable guests to their boxes, often for purposes of referring to them by name to make some policy point or strike some kind of emotional connection. This year, Trump’s guests include first responders, crime victims, military veterans, an ICE agent, a blue-collar worker, and a small business owner. The tradition has spread to other lawmakers as well. Almost two dozen “Dreamers” will be there as guests of Democratic lawmakers, and others are bringing those involved in the MeToo movement. Some lawmakers, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), plan to wear black as a symbol for the movement. Kennedy is bringing a transgender soldier, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King, while Bill Nye is coming as a guest of Rep. Jim Brindenstine (R-Okla.), whose nomination to serve as the next NASA administrator has run into opposition.
— No shows. Some very prominent lawmakers, like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) are not attending out of protest of Trump. “The American people have been subjected to a year of racist, erratic, and divisive behavior from their Commander in Chief, and I refuse to accept that as the new normal,” Schakowsky said in a statement. Also not expected at the State of the Union is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who has been on a speaking tour. As partisan divisions have hardened in recent years, it’s not all that unusual for justices to skip the speech.
— The reaction. Last year, when Trump gave his first speech to Congress, there was some criticism from the left that pundits were essentially grading Trump on a curve. In other words, just because his SOTU was not like one of his campaign rallies, he succeeded. But the emotional high point was when Trump paid tribute to Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in Yemen weeks earlier, as his widow stood for a standing ovation. Those undoubtedly will be the moments that will get the most attention afterward. But late night comics will be at the ready. Stephen Colbert is doing a live, post-SOTU “Late Show” on CBS, as are Trevor Noah and Jordan Klepper on Comedy Central. In addition to the Kennedy and Sanders speeches, there also will be other events tied to anti-Trump activism. Patton Oswalt, Debra Messing and Sarah Silverman will introduce activists from groups like United We Dream, NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign. It will be streamed on NowThisNews.
— The numbers. Here’s a figure to keep in mind: 47.7 million. That is the number of people who watched Trump’s speech to Congress last year, on Feb. 28, according to Nielsen. The highest viewership was for President Bill Clinton’s first address to a joint session of Congress in 1993, which garnered 66.9 million. President Barack Obama’s first speech drew 52.4 million in 2009. Prediction: “I am sure the president is going to talk his numbers,” said Donna Brazile, the former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, at the Post event. Trump’s campaign is also looking for numbers — in the form of donations. In a fundraising appeal, they are offering to display each donor’s name during a live stream of the address.