Presidents usually arrive at the U.S. Capitol for their first speeches to Congress to sell their highest priority legislative proposals.
Barack Obama stressed igniting an economic recovery. George W. Bush talked about a tax cut. Bill Clinton touted health care.
But don’t expect Donald Trump – a nontraditional president – to follow the traditional path, even if that means squandering the political capital a new leader has in their first few months in office.
“This is not a guy who’s going to give a detailed policy speech, even if it’s written out in front of him,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy group.
After a month in office, Trump will deliver a prime-time speech to Congress on Tuesday night that will offer his vision for the country, including his policy priorities, but will be short on what lawmakers have been wanting to hear for week: the details.
President Donald Trump will deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST.
Ken Khachigian, a California political consultant who served as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, recalls that staff worked around the clock in the first four weeks of Reagan’s presidency to enable him to lay out an extremely detailed blueprint for economic recovery, including spending reductions and tax cuts, in his first speech to Congress. He urged Trump to give Congress similar guidance.
“We felt at the time that Reagan has a big agenda and he came off the election with a mandate,” he said. “We didn’t want to squander what momentum we had. We felt like striking while the iron is hot.”
Trump is expected to talk about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, rewriting the nation’s tax laws, spending on roads and bridges, keeping immigrants from entering the country illegally and streamlining regulations.
His aides say he will use a more optimistic tone than he did at his inaugural address after weeks of taking credit, some without merit, for the surge in the stock market and creating jobs.
“It would be good to lay out an agenda,” said Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter. “We’ve got themes of a presidency. We need meat on the bones.”
Trump also will announce that his first budget, to be released mid-March, will include a $54 billion increase in defense spending, paid for by cutting discretionary spending by the same amount, according to an administration official with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice. Discretionary spending involves funding lawmakers can more easily cut, unlike programs such as Social Security, which are subject to already-determined benefit levels.
This is a landmark event, a message to the world, in these dangerous times of American strength, security and resolve.
President Donald Trump
“I think you’re going to see him try to talk about policies in a broad sense of where he wants to take this country and what defining success is, what that goal means,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.
At the White House on Monday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said they were optimistic about the president’s speech.
“For virtually all Republicans, the chance to actually do things we felt would move the country in the right direction and have the president sign them into law is a pretty exciting prospect,” said McConnell.
Trump began his presidency with a flurry of executive action and little emphasis on his legislative priorities. But as he has exhausted much of what he can do without Congress, he has turned his attention to Capitol Hill.
Trump does not expect legislation to be written at the White House, according to three people familiar with his plans but not authorized to speak publicly about them. His staff still will rely on already written Republican legislation that never advanced while Obama was president, according to people in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
This is more likely to be another campaign rally to show he’s a bold leader in charge.
George Edwards, who wrote “Predicting the Presidency,” about the connection between presidential leadership and legislative successes
Congress has worked with Trump on a handful of items, including the repeal of Obama-era environmental rules. Speaking to local business leaders last week in Kentucky, McConnell named three items he wanted Congress to finish quickly: confirming the remainder of Trump’s nominees, including Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, repealing Obamacare and enacting a tax overhaul.
But some lawmakers, including a few Republicans, want to investigate Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was dismissed over calls he made to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. and misled Vice President Mike Pence about.
Ornstein wondered whether Trump will continue to dwell on his November victory. The president has repeatedly exaggerated the margin of his Electoral College victory and claimed, without offering evidence, that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote.
“I expect a heavy dose of bragging,” Ornstein said.
Still, Ornstein said Democrats might cheer, and Republicans might sit in stony silence, if, for example, Trump pledged to protect Medicare and Social Security from the cuts proposed by conservatives. On the other hand, Trump could prompt jeers from Democrats if he talks about his proposed Mexican border wall, his temporary ban on refugees or his admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
“If he can get Democrats booing him,” Ornstein said, “that’s something that will suit his purposes.”