WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said this weekend that Tuesday’s State of the Union Address will have a “very, very positive message.”
Political experts say they’ll believe it when they see it.
With Trump’s speech coming a day after the Iowa caucuses and a day before the Senate votes on his impeachment, some experts expect he will make impeachment a talking point, to “demonize” opponents and fire up his base.
Trump will address a divided Congress – about half of whom have already voted to impeach him or will vote to do so Wednesday in the Senate, which is ultimately expected to acquit him.
Arizona political strategist Chad Campbell said the two parties have never been more divided in modern politics than they are now, and he imagines the mood for the State of the Union will be tense.
“I think that if the impeachment trial goes the way we think it’s going to go, he is pretty unchecked at this point,” Campbell said. “I think he feels like he’s got absolute power in some way now.”
But White House officials have laid out what they say will be a speech of “relentless optimism” that will focus on the administration’s successes so far and goals for the future.
The theme of this year’s address is “The Great American Comeback,” and a senior administration official said in a briefing Friday that Congress can expect to hear him talk about the economy, school choice, affordable health care, immigration, national security and more. The official said the speech will have a “very optimistic tone” and be “unifying.”
“The president will . . . put forward an agenda focused squarely on the needs of working families, addressing issues that affect Americans’ quality of life, and laying out solutions with can-do optimism in the face of unjustified pessimism we are hearing from some in Congress,” the official said.
When pressed by reporters, however, the official refused to speculate on whether Trump would mention impeachment.
It’s not the first time a president has given a State of the Union address during an impeachment. Almost exactly 21 years ago, President Bill Clinton delivered an address between being impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate.
Michael Waldman, then the chief speechwriter for Clinton, said Monday that the mention of impeachment in the 1999 State of the Union Address was not even on the table.
“His whole strategy was to focus on the policy and focus on the aspects of the presidency that people really liked,” Waldman said.
But he isn’t holding his breath that Trump will do the same. Besides focusing on impeachment, Waldman believes Trump will use the speech as a launching point for his re-election bid, focusing heavily on immigration policies and condemning socialism.
“This is not just a State of the Union in the middle of an impeachment, it’s the opening shot for his re-election campaign,” he said.
Blaine Garvin, a political science professor at Gonzaga University, said he does not think Trump will mention impeachment in his speech, but that he will talk a lot about it at his rallies.
Others said Trump might treat the State of the Union as if it was a rally, though. Campbell said he expects Trump will use the address “as a way to fire up his base for the election this year.”
While impeachment may be center-stage, Campbell would advise Trump to focus on positives – like the strong economy.
“My guess is he’s going to use the speech as a way to tout his accomplishments,” he said. “And probably try to paint – directly or indirectly – his political opposition as trying to stand in is his way and really try to demonize them.”
Campbell said he also expects Trump to “announce something big – that maybe would even be questionably legal or unconstitutional – feeling as bold as he’s going to be feeling, or emboldened as he’s going to be feeling.”
“Something big” would be fine with Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott. He said through a spokesman Monday that he “expects to hear a positive address, focused on the many successes President Trump has had this year.”
Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, said he hopes to see Trump focus on an issue he has talked about in previous addresses, but has made little progress on.
“I hope the president seizes the opportunity in his address to bring Congress together on infrastructure and set forth a clear course of action,” Stanton said in a statement released by his office.
Marija Bekafigo, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, said she suspects some Democrats will stage protests by avoiding the speech altogether or wearing a specific color to send a message.
But she said the spotlight may instead be on who’s behind Trump – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“Everyone should keep their eyes on Speaker Pelosi’s demeanor to determine whether there will be continued animosity between her, House Democrats and Trump or whether they will be able to put impeachment aside and get back to their work for the country,” Bekafigo said.