February 25, 2017
A presidential speech to Congress is one of those all-American moments that ooze ritual and decorum.
The House sergeant-at-arms will stand at the rear of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night and announce the arrival of President Donald Trump before a joint session of Congress by intoning: “Mister Speaker, the President of the United States” just like always.
Trump will stride down the center aisle to lusty cheers and hearty handshakes from his Republican supporters. First lady Melania Trump, accompanied by special guests, will smile from the gallery above.
The White House is promising that Trump’s first address to Congress will be a forward-looking one about the “renewal of the American spirit.”
The speech offers Trump an opportunity to stand before millions of viewers around the United States and the world and explain his goals for the next four years. He probably will stress early achievements such as his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court and a series of executive orders to rein in government.
Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told “Watters’ World” on the Fox News Channel, “The Trump address won’t be boring because Donald Trump’s not boring.”
But the staid setting of the House chamber doesn’t play to Trump’s strengths. He captured the White House with his say-anything style at raucous campaign rallies and his red “Make America Great Again” ball cap.
Trump has shown he can stick to a script, but not necessarily the one people expected.
His speech at the Republican convention last summer offered a pledge to undo the job killing regulations and executive orders put into place during the 8 years of the Obama administration.
There also are big questions about how Democrats will choose to show their opposition to the president, especially if they are emboldened by the vocal Trump opponents who have turned out in force to shout down any dialogue at legislators’ town-hall meetings in their home districts over the past few weeks.
Already, Democrats have made a point of inviting immigrants and foreigners to attend Trump’s speech as a choreographed counterpoint to his immigration policies.
The president so far appears on friendly terms with congressional Republicans. He speaks often by phone with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
But GOP legislators are getting impatient for details of the president’s positions on top issues such as a tax overhaul, repealing President Barack Obama’s health care law and trade policy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, asked what he wanted to hear from Trump on Tuesday, told a Chamber of Commerce crowd in Kentucky last week: “A tweet-free, optimistic and uplifting message about where America needs to go.”
While the traditions of Congress demand manners and cordiality, plenty of drama has unfolded over the years in the interplay between presidents and legislators during State of the Union speeches and other formal addresses, such as Tuesday’s.
During Obama’s September 2009 address to a joint session of Congress on health care, Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, blurted out “You lie!” It was seen by many as a breathtaking show of disrespect. Groups of Republicans also showed their displeasure with Obama in more subtle ways, by snickering or not applauding.
Michael Waldman, chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said Trump can easily “blow up a speech” with just a few deviations from the text on his teleprompter.
Waldman said that pointed opposition from Democrats could throw Trump off his game, as well.
“How will he respond when several hundred Democrat members of Congress are not giving him the love he’s hoping for from the audience?” Waldman asks.
Kall says heckling from Democrats or others in the chamber could be just the thing that energizes Trump and gives his speech extra zing.
Tuesday’s speech will be Trump’s first visit to the Capitol since his inauguration. He visited once during the transition and testified before congressional panels a few times in his years as a businessman.
He also met Republican lawmakers a number of times while he was a candidate, and those meetings went pretty well. Lawmakers would often remark on how different he was in person than the flame-thrower they saw on TV.