Matt McDaniel

11 minute read

Here’s a quick overview of tonight’s “Semi-State of the Union” and then a few things to watch for.

At a little after 9pm this evening, the President will address a Joint Session of Congress (we recommend watching on C-SPAN to avoid the commentary and the pundits). This is, basically, a State of the Union Address, but, given that he’s only been in office for a little over a month, there’s little in the way of progress and development to report to the House and Senate. Rather, this First Address will be a policy outline for the President’s agenda and his legislative goals. Given that, stylistically, it is basically the same as a State of the Union, expect cheers and jeers. Remember that there was the Joe Wilson “You Lie!” moment with President Obama at one Address to Congress, so there very well could be some Democrats heckling or walking out. It’ll be political, it’ll be a spectacle, get ready for it.


Budget Battles

The President is expected to outline his budget proposals, or at least the top-line figures that he will be sending to Congress. This involves a major increase in military spending (to the tune of about $54B, or 10%) and commensurate cuts in discretionary spending. This budget outline does not include “policy” issues like tax reform, healthcare, or entitlements. Rather, it is focused on funding from top-line figures. Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney addressed the press yesterday to unveil some of these figures and to note that the President was working to fulfill his campaign promises to roll back regulations and increase military funding.

It’s important to note that the military funding increase is being touted as necessary to repair gaining military infrastructure and hardware. Rather than, at least at the outset, growing the size of the military, the new outlay of funds seems to be focused on modernizing bases, repairing and updating the Navy, and working to bring networks up to higher standards. This increase has been, already, criticized by the Left for being too large of a boost and from hawks like John McCain who see it as too small. As Director Mulvaney quipped: then, perhaps, it’s just right.

This will likely be one of the toughest stretches of the speech for the President who has to thread the needle of Democrats (who aren’t really going to like anything that the President says), Republicans who want more spending and won’t budge, Republicans who want less spending and won’t budge, and Republican leadership that is terrified of looking weak and being smashed between the tidal wave of Trump and the rocks of their intransigent Members. Applause may be tepid, but it’s likely the President won’t shy away from his messaging.


Presidential Guests

The President will have several guests at the Address (and this is a good indicator of the direction of the speech). The first is Megan Crowley, a survivor of a childhood disease whose father founded a pharmaceutical company to search for a cure. The company went from five people to over one hundred and Megan has survived into her 20s. The President has also invited two widows of slain California police officers. Bother were killed in the line of duty in 2014 by illegal aliens. Another guest is a woman who benefitted from a tax credit scholarship in Florida. Finally, the President has also invited the widow of Justice Antonin Scalia and Jamiel Shaw, Sr. whose son was killed by an illegal immigrant.

Generally, from the guest list, it’s pretty clear that the President will be addressing his signature immigration reform efforts and the goal of cracking down on illegals who commit crimes in the United States. He will also be looking at companies that hire Americans and “big pharma.” Obviously the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to replace Justice Scalia will figure into the speech as well as protecting law enforcement officials. It also seems that he will be focusing on reforms in education, including tax breaks and voucher programs.


Watch For: Ad-Libbing

Expect the Address to be “Trumpian” and full of ad-libbed moments. While the speech will likely get off on-message and on-script (a version of the speech usually makes it to the press ahead of time), if there is one rule in covering the President, it’s that there are no rules. Expect Mr. Trump to deviate from the prepared text if he feels that there’s a reason to break from the remarks.

If we have to guess where these breaks will come, it will probably be a discourse about how big of a victory he had in November and how little people believed that he was going to win. This is a standard trope of Trump deviations from prepared remarks. He could also go into talking about anecdotes about businesses and the conversations he has had with corporate leaders in the past few weeks.


Watch For: Democrats Disrupting

It’s unclear exactly how combative the President will be with Members of Congress, especially those who are planning to do some kind of disruption. As we mentioned, the “You Lie!” moment got Joe Wilson a lot of airtime. Already, some Democrats have declined to attend the speech or, like Representative Eliot Engel from New York’s 16th Congressional District, changed their usual State of the Union seating arrangement to avoid shaking the President’s hand (aren’t our leaders mature?).

There’s a strong chance that there could be a boisterous response to the President’s Address including yelling and walkouts. The rationale is actually fairly simple: the hard-left is eating up the disruption and some honestly think that Trump, who has basically governed as a moderate, is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. Of course, they’ve been raising huge amounts of money off of resisting the Trump agenda. Despite the fact that polls show a majority of Americans think that the country would be better off if Democrats tried to cooperate with the President, there’s money and power in resistance (and they are hoping that it will translate back into electoral wins in 2018 and 2020).

While it’s unlikely that any of the disruptions will capture the entire press coverage of the Address, you can expect that the left-leaning media is hoping for a shouting match or something that they can play on repeat. As we’ve discussed numerous times here before, the media’s decision isn’t really rooted in bias, but rather in the business reality that conflict sells (and conflict with Trump is even better). It would also be good press-time for the likes of Senators like Corey Booker and Elizabeth Warren, who both have Presidential aspirations for 2020 to do something outlandish. They’d get coverage on television and more interview bookings, and, thereby get more exposure. Cynical? Sure, but we’ve come dangerously close to the post-civility era on the Left, so there’s really nothing stopping them from pushing that narrative.


Watch For: Republican Responses

As noted, the President has proposed a fairly moderate agenda in his first month in office. It will be interesting to see the amount of support he gets from Republican members over issues that are surely not going to sit well with the entire caucus. These issues include protecting entitlements from cuts, increasing infrastructure spending, and scaling back free trade. Some Republicans have been willing to work with the President on issues of common ground, but, especially on new spending, there may be some light between the President and his Party.

It’s likely that the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has told members in advance that it’s a good idea, especially given the possibility for Democratic disruption, to show as united a front to support the President as possible. However, given that the President will (likely) be proposing some ideas outside of Republican orthodoxy, he may meet with a chilly response.


Watch For: Not Shying Away From Controversy

Even the President’s biggest boosters will admit that he’s not a terribly subtle man. Don’t expect anything different from tonight. If you’re looking for a conciliatory tone on issues like immigration and border security, that’s just not something that the President will be looking to do. There may even be talk about the dishonest media (cue Acela Corridor pearl-clutching).

This type of talk will, of course, drive news cycles to report about the “dark” and “ominous” speech of the President (like every one where he actually lays out the problems afflicting the country).


Watch For: Congressional Critique 

The President will, more than likely, throw a few punches at Democrats in Congress. Senate Democrats have been forcing procedural votes on the members of the President’s Cabinet and have lengthened the process to such an extent that Donald Trump has had to wait longer than all of his predecessors for the full confirmation of his Cabinet. There have been times in the past when specific Cabinet nominees have drawn criticism, but never to such a constant, harping degree as now.

Given that the President has invited the widow of the late Justice Scalia, the President will certainly be pushing Senate leadership to confirm Justice Sclaia’s replacement, Judge Neil Gorsuch. Judge Gorsuch’s first hearing is preliminary scheduled for March 20.

This will likely be the part of the speech where the President may digress into talking about the election, Democratic losses, and even may throw a few jabs at the inner workings of the Democratic Party. Whether this comes as a jab at Democrats throwing Bernie under the bus, the media being in the tank for Hillary, the election of Tom Perez as DNC Chair, or a host of other issues, the President has, on occasion, drifted off-script and ad-libbed on these issues. This would also draw boos and jeers from the Democrats in the chamber.


Watch For: Obamacare Specifics?

There are a lot of policy gaps in the current Trump blueprint for government. Most of this is understandable because, simply, the President is a big-picture guy. He’s the CEO with the vision and he hires talented people to make sure that vision is carried out. It’s not really that controversial of a model to follow. The problem is that we’ve had eight years of micromanagement and diving into the weeds. A President with a different management style is certain to shake things up.

This Address will allow the President the opportunity to lay out some policy specifics for a whole host of issues including infrastructure spending, budgeting, military reforms, and a tax plan. However, the most important one, from a political standpoint, is probably the rollback/repeal/replacement of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The White House has said that it will be rolling out its alternative within the month (though it may take Congress the rest of the year to get acting on a modified version). The specifics, at the moment, are generally vague.

Sure, we get it, there’s really no reason for the President to lay out all of the specifics of his plans during the Address. He got to where he is by, as we said, laying out a vision. He’s never shown himself to be terribly interested in the minutiae. However, given that he is talking to Congress (as opposed to giving a campaign speech), it may be important to at least throw a bone to the policy dogs. Of course, Trump’s team knows that anything given to the press and the Democrats will, immediately, be savaged by them. However, it will also give some of Mr. Trump’s supporters in Congress the ability to say that the President is on solid policy footing and drafting a plan Americans can be happy to support.


The Big Picture: The Takeaway

Let’s be real, folks. The headlines have already been written and the opinion journalists are ready with their critiques. “Light on Policy, Trump Booed Loudly By Democrats, Light Applause from Republicans” will read the Huffington Post (or something like it). Drudge will run with Republicans being spineless and not sticking up for the President. CNN will be fixated on what people are wearing and the Middle School antics of particular politicians. MSNBC will be mad that certain identity politics groups are left out of the speech. FoxNews will cover the policies that the President lays out.

This is why you need to watch C-SPAN. Form your own opinion. There should be no expectations of cordiality and a great, rousing speech that brings all of America together. There will be a few lines where everyone is clapping (God Bless Our Troops, spend more on education, and America’s a great country) and there will be jeers (probably back and forth given that Mr. Trump is not just going to stand there and take it). However, for all the hubbub, the actual details will most likely be fairly moderate: securing the border, improving roads, deporting criminals, rolling back burdensome regulations, and creating jobs.

While the critics of the President will, of course, say that each of these ideas is the most extreme that has ever been proposed, it’s important to see through the hyperbole and come to rest on the notion that the President is laying out a vision for prosperity in the country that has its roots in sound and solid economic principles. Of course, things could change, but, given that Mr. Trump has endeavored to be true to his campaign promises, his policy goals are actually fairly easy to predict.

The speech will air at 9pm.