House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has invited President Donald Trump to deliver a State of the Union message to Congress on February 5, an invitation the president has accepted. On Monday, January 28—the day before the original date of the speech, which was postponed due to the government shutdown—a panel of experts from the Governance Studies program at Brookings discussed the likely themes for the president’s address and the optics and politics of the event. Panelists also shared thoughts on the 35-day partial government closure. Below is a selection of video clips from the event. Visit the event’s web page for full audio and video of the discussion.
Senior Fellow Vanessa Williamson discussed how factors including an air traffic controllers’ slowdown at LaGuardia airport, damaged national parks, and growing impacts on the economy contributed to the end of the government shutdown on January 25. “When you shut down a major part of American infrastructure,” she said, “then all of a sudden things are very serious and you realize government is a player in the economy.”
With regards to the likely substance of the president’s speech, Senior Fellow John Hudak, pointed out that “the power of presidential rhetoric at a State of the Union to set an agenda within the Congress is important,” but “we actually don’t have any idea what the president’s legislative interests are for the next two years.” He suggested that, for this reason, the president’s supporters and detractors will be equally interested in hearing what the he has to say.
Will the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, a signature achievement of the Republican-majority 115th Congress, be featured in the State of the Union? Williamson observed that, somewhat surprisingly, President Trump “doesn’t like talking about it.” Moreover, she observed,
The Republican Party doesn’t have a forward-looking agenda outside of this immigration debate, and having shut down the government over it and not seeing substantial improvement in the public in terms of support for the kind of immigration policies that Trump has called for has left them in a real bind.
Senior Fellow E.J. Dionne, Jr. said that a State of the Union speech has become “less useful” in recent years due to partisan polarization, but the speech still “requires a president to say, ‘here is what I want to do with my power and here is what I want Congress to do.’” Dionne spoke to broad themes and challenges for congressional Republicans and Democrats beyond the speech. For the Democrats, he said, Speaker Pelosi’s challenge is to get progressive and moderate Democrats “working together on a common agenda or they are going to have a real problem.” On the other hand, he said, the shutdown suggests that Republicans’ focus on judges, tax cuts, and immigration are not unifying issues.
Benjamin Wittes, senior fellow and editor-in-chief of Lawfare, explained that President Trump does have a good story he can tell about economic growth, job creation, fighting ISIS, deregulation, tax cuts, and more. “It is important to remember,” Wittes said, “that there really is a story to tell there, and that will occupy a substantial portion of the early part of the speech” if the president sticks to the script his speechwriters give him.
Wittes also addressed what he called the “psychology” of the event for President Trump and for Speaker Pelosi. As the president stands at the podium to address the assembled House and Senate members, Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, other officials, and guests, the speaker of the House and the vice president sit behind him. Thus, President Trump will have his back to Speaker Pelosi, whose party just regained control of the House of Representatives, and who refused to accede to the president’s position on funding for his border wall during the shutdown debate. In this context, Wittes described “a very tricky political situation for him.”
Hudak also spoke to the political dynamics that may be at work in the House chamber during the upcoming State of the Union speech, noting that “unlike most times [President Trump] is giving a speech, half of the room will not be applauding when he speaks.” Although the president has faced this before, Hudak added that
If he’s feeling like he is in a weakened position, which he empirically is, and [given] the dynamics Ben correctly described, of not knowing what’s going on behind him except knowing the woman above him beat him twice badly, and then seeing … more than 50 percent of the room not applauding him, that could become psychologically difficult for the president and his reaction could be stepping on norms and reacting in ways that we don’t necessarily anticipate a president to do in that setting.
Molly Reynolds, senior fellow in Governance Studies, moderated the discussion.
Visit the event’s web page for full audio and video of the discussion.