President Trump will give his first official State of the Union address tonight (technically, a new president’s speech to a joint session of Congress is not the “Information of the State of the Union” message required by Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution). Moreso than most presidents this early in their terms, Trump’s speech is unlikely to change very many minds; most people have already dug in their views of Trump by now, and a nicely-written and temperately-delivered speech may not do much besides buy him a good 24-48 hours of news cycle, even assuming that doesn’t get stomped on by events or Trump’s own itchy Twitter finger.
That said, it’s always worth trying to communicate. Here are five suggestions for the White House:
1. Keep selling the tax cut. Trump’s and the GOP’s approval ratings and poll standing have improved slightly since passing the tax cut package in December. That’s mostly, I suspect, winning back frustrated Republicans who at least see something getting accomplished. But the bill remains widely misunderstood. Trump ought to take some time to lay out the projection that 80% of Americans will see a tax cut, explain when it’s coming and why people should look for the difference in withholding from their paychecks, and reel off examples of companies handing out bonuses, raising wages, making new investments and creating new jobs.
2. Explain the defeat of ISIS. Most Americans know we are at war with ISIS. Many don’t know how thoroughly it’s been defeated – probably not permanently, given the nature of terrorist organizations and insurgencies, but it’s lost over 95% of the territory it once held, half of that since Trump took office. The president shouldn’t oversell this as a “Mission Accomplished”/”junior varsity” moment or promise a timetable we can’t meet, but it is a huge and tangible milestone, and the American people should hear that explained, not just in a soundbite but with some detail and perspective. As with the tax cuts, that level of cool, fact-based communication isn’t Trump’s forte, but it will work if he tries it.
3. An olive branch on immigration. After the self-inflicted wound of his “s***hole” comment, Trump has actually played the immigration debate with a fairly deft touch, loudly signaling his willingness to cut a deal on “Dreamers” and putting Chuck Schumer in the position of being the holdout. Trump has a strong hand to play with his base (which trusts him on this issue more than Schumer’s trusts his); there’s a deep well of distrust of Trump on immigration from much of the rest of the country, but many Americans don’t really trust the extremism of the Democrats, either, and want a deal made. Trump should press the advantage he has to emphasize his willingness to make a deal.
4. Don’t forget health care. Republicans failed badly last year not only in legislating a replacement for Obamacare, but in selling it to the voters. The solution may be to go smaller and more incremental, but whatever is to be done, the president should get started in telling the voters why the system still needs to change, and how it can be made better.
5. Send hope and support to Iran. The State of the Union isn’t just for talking to America and Congress – the president’s foreign policy message is also heard around the world. The protests against Iran’s regime that erupted in December have receded a bit from view of late, but tonight offers a large megaphone for the president to remind people at home and abroad that the Iranian people have legitimate grievances with their tyrannical, corrupt, and incompetent government, and that America stands with the Iranian people. That doesn’t have to be a combative message – but it needs to be said.
Can Trump keep the focus on issues, and off his own combustible personality? Can he avoid sounding like Twitter Trump for the night? If so, he might squeeze the maximum benefit out of that one news cycle.