Trump’s demeanor on Tuesday night will matter as much – or more than – his words. His moments of composure, like last February’s joint address to Congress, have won him praise, and he’ll be looking to reassure Republican party leaders who will be gathering later this week in West Virginia to plan for the upcoming elections.
Here’s five things to watch in tonight’s speech.
1) Will Trump stay on script?
At last year’s speech, Trump won praise for sticking to the teleprompter. While he’s whiplashed America since then with his combative Twitter persona and reports of his blowups and “shithole” remarks on immigration at West Wing meetings, Trump knows everything goes more smoothly when he stays on message.
With the recent shutdown, for instance, Trump stayed out of sight, only commenting via Twitter during the roughly 70 hours of the closure. That helped his party stick to its strategy of putting the blame on Democrats—something Trump hopes to continue as members of Congress try to nail down a deal on immigration and the budget before a Feb. 8 deadline.
“With the disappearance of Steve Bannon and the hint of a new approach on immigration, there may be a moment for the president to make a rhetorical change,” said Timothy Naftali, a professor of public service and presidential historian at New York University’s Wagner School. “This is a good speech to set a new tone.”
2) Will Trump talk about health care?
Recent polling from POLITICO/Morning Consult showed that 59 percent of voters surveyed want Trump to talk about improving the health care system, followed by 58 percent who want discussion of creating jobs and improving the economy.
Health care, in other words, still looms large in voters’ minds despite Republicans’ failed effort in 2017 to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“I hope he makes some mention of it because it is important to conservative voters,” said Lanhee Chen, the policy director of the Romney-Ryan 2012 presidential campaign.
But health care made scant appearance in talking points the White House distributed to surrogates over the weekend, despite being a focus of last year’s joint address to Congress. Instead, Trump is expected to focus on five broad areas including jobs and the economy, infrastructure, immigration, trade, and national security.
“Talking about health care right now reminds people of the problems Republicans had in repealing the Affordable Care Act and creates unrealistic expectations the White House may revisit it again this year,” said Larry Levitt, senior vice president for health reform at the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
What Trump may mention, in passing, is the repeal of the individual mandate as part of the tax legislation – a feature that undid one key element of the health care law. “I would not be surprised if the president talks about the administrative steps they are taking to weaken the Affordable Care Act,” Levitt added. “Republicans may end up pointing to the repeal of the individual mandate as the repeal of the law as a whole.”
3) Will Trump say what he wants on immigration?
The White House released its broad framework for immigration on Jan. 25, days ahead of schedule, and immediately drew fierce opposition from Democrats, whose leaders rejected the offer of a long-awaited pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and some other undocumented immigrants in exchange for border wall funding and an end to preferential treatment for the extended family of naturalized citizens.
Trump has complicated negotiations by shifting his position. In a televised meeting with Hill negotiators in early January, he talked about a “bill of love,” and suggested that he’d be open to passing legislation covering undocumented immigrants without working out border wall issues first—until senior Republicans jumped in to correct him.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that First Lady Melania Trump would host family members of people killed by MS-13 gang members – a sign that Trump will take a hardline approach in the address, which Sanders said is built on the nationalist theme of “building a safe, strong and proud America.”
Immigration policy experts on both sides of the issue will be closely watching Trump’s words here to see if they’re consistent with the legislative framework the White House released – developed by the White House’s immigration hawks like senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and chief of staff John Kelly – or if there’s any sign of the gentler approach Trump himself seems to have indicated he’s open to in his own unscripted moments.
4) Will the president mention Russia – or the investigation into whether he obstructed justice?
The White House says that it is fully cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation, so much so that Trump himself agreed to be interviewed – repeatedly insisting that his campaign did not collude with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
Sanders dismissed reporters’ queries about the investigations on Monday as “Russia fever” – even though Mueller has interviewed an ever-wider array of former and current top White House aides.
But Trump has railed about the FBI’s handling of the investigation, which has expanded to include his decision to fire former FBI director James Comey, making repeated criticism of senior officials including deputy director Andrew McCabe, who abruptly stepped away from his role on Monday.
And many will be watching to see whether Trump mentions Russia, the country, after he declined on Monday to make full use of the sanction powers granted to him by Congress after the 2016 election.
5) Will Trump try to be bipartisan?
Trump heads into the speech armed with the healthy state of the U.S. economy – with the stock market on fire, U.S. companies handing out bonuses, and a low unemployment rate – data points that appeal to Americans, regardless of party.
Yet Trump’s major disadvantage remains the completely polarized electorate, with many voters so turned off by his personality and divisive politics that they’re unable to acknowledge any of his administration’s gains.
The White House has promised that his speech will be forward-looking and bipartisan, with a legislative agenda like infrastructure that appeals to both parties.
But one ongoing challenge is Trump’s inability to successfully reach out to that part of the electorate that continues to snub him. Democrats, many of whom wore white to last year’s address in protest of Trump, have said they plan to wear black, echoing Hollywood’s TimesUp movement and drawing attention to allegations about the president’s own past behavior.
Beyond the speech, some are watching where he decides to go in the coming days and weeks to sell his agenda and his presidency.
“If he really wants to expand his base of support, then he needs to physically go to the places that do not support him,” Naftali added. “Does he seek to be more than the president of the red counties?”