WASHINGTON – A presidential address to Congress is always part policy speech, part political theater. With President Donald Trump, a former reality TV star, there’s extra potential for drama as he makes his first address to Congress.
After a chaotic start to his presidency, Trump will be trying to project his administration as ready to stride forward on top priorities such as changes to President Barack Obama’s health care law and a tax overhaul. Congressional Democrats, in turn, will be trying to calibrate how strongly to oppose the Republican president in the staid setting of the House chamber, where manners still matter.
Some things to watch for Tuesday night:
Which members of Congress will arrive hours early to stake out seats on the center aisle of the House chamber for Trump’s big entrance? Expect core Trump supporters to try to line the aisle. But will some of the Democrats’ traditional aisle-huggers continue to angle for prime seats, then make a point of passing up a handshake with the president? Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who has often positioned herself on the aisle for presidential addresses, does not plan on shaking Trump’s hand, according to her office.
THE ROBED ONES
Check out which Supreme Court justices show up this year. Samuel Alito, part of the court’s conservative contingent, hasn’t gone since he was caught on camera during the 2010 State of the Union address shaking his head and mouthing “not true” when Obama criticized a Supreme Court decision. Clarence Thomas, who has also stayed away in recent years, said in 2010 that the addresses had become so partisan that “it’s very uncomfortable for a judge to sit there.” Could this be a year for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who leads the court’s liberal wing, to opt out? She criticized Trump in interviews before his election but later said she regretted making “ill-advised” comments in which she dismissed Trump as a “faker” who “really has an ego.” She went to every one of Obama’s speeches (but dozed off in 2015 when, she said, she “wasn’t 100 percent sober.”)
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is promising Trump’s speech will be “an optimistic vision for the country, crossing traditional lines of party, race, socio-economic status.” Trump has demonstrated that he can stick to a script for high-profile speeches. But there’s always interplay between presidents and legislators in such addresses, and even a few presidential ad libs could change the dynamics of the night. If Trump veers into talk about “fake news,” and “criminal leaks” from intelligence officials and complaints about the courts blocking his executive order on immigration, that would distract from his effort to show more discipline and focus.
Spicer says he expects Trump to get “a very robust and applause-filled reception” from legislators. But dozens of Democratic legislators boycotted Trump’s inauguration. And now, they have to decide how to receive the president in their own chambers. Will they applaud the GOP president? Will the decorum of the moment be pierced with boos and heckles? Some of that may be choreographed in advance, but there’s always the chance of spontaneous outbursts. In 2009, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out “You lie!” during an Obama speech to Congress on health care. Expect to see lots of white in the crowd: Democratic women in the House planned to wear white to honor women’s suffrage and “stand in solidarity with the women of our nation.”
Republicans in Congress are getting impatient for more detail on Trump’s plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and to undertake sweeping tax changes. Trump on Monday called the health care law a “complicated issue” and promised to give states “the flexibility they need to make the end result really, really good for them.” The speech is a prime opportunity for Trump to go beyond such generalities, but aides say not to expect a “legislative walkthrough.”
The action won’t all be on the floor of the House. The galleries in the House balcony will offer another tier of commentary. Democratic members of Congress have invited immigrants, foreigners and people who have benefited from the Obama health-care law to be seated in the galleries as their guests. And first lady Melania Trump has invited special guests to sit in her box who are likely to telegraph different messages.
No need to wait for the speech to end to get political commentary. Based on past presidential addresses to Congress, expect legislators to be live tweeting their reactions to what they view as the best and worst of it. And there’s always the potential for Trump himself to amplify – or scramble – his own message with presidential tweets before and after the fact. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R.-Kentucky, said he’s hoping for a “tweet-free” message from Trump.
Expect both official and informal counterprogramming. Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who helped expand health care coverage in his state under Obama’s health care law, will deliver the Democrats’ response to Trump’s address. And immigration activist Astrid Silva, who came to the U.S. illegally when she was 5, will offer the party’s Spanish-language response. Before Trump’s speech, opponents of the president planned a “resistance address” and rally at Lafayette Park across from the White House, with Rosie O’Donnell as a headliner. She and Trump have been feuding for years.