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5 things to track in the Trump's State of the Union address

President Donald Trump in the White House on

President Donald Trump in the White House on Friday. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday looking to gain ground for his political agenda after experiencing a series of setbacks following the midterm election.

The president will deliver his speech a week later than anticipated after presiding over the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, and having bowed to pressure from Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay the address until the government reopened.

With the threat of another government shutdown looming, and still no closer to striking a deal with Congress to receive $5.7 billion in taxpayer funds for a Southern border wall, Trump told reporters Thursday he will use the speech to call for “unification.”

“I really think it’s going to be a speech that is going to cover a lot of territory, but part of it is going to be unity,” Trump said about his expectations for the speech, which will be his first address before a joint session of Congress not controlled by Republicans in both chambers.

A senior White House official, speaking to reporters Friday, said Trump’s speech is titled “Choosing Greatness” and will focus on five topics — immigration, national security, trade, health care and infrastructure.

Here are five things political analysts say they’ll be tracking when Trump takes the podium at 9 p.m.:

State of the Union, State of Emergency?

The president has hinted that he’ll use the speech to announce his intent to declare a State of Emergency to fund a Southern border wall if lawmakers do not present him with a border security deal to his liking by Feb. 15, when a short-term spending bill is set run out.

Trump will be challenged to deliver an argument for the wall that he hasn’t already made since campaigning on the issue in 2016, said Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University.

“He’s tried to modify what he says . . . at first it was very much about the danger of Mexican immigrants and other immigrants to American citizens, and then it was ‘and also they’re bringing in drugs,’ and then the most recent thing is ‘they’re bringing in human trafficking and it’s a humanitarian crisis.’ So he’s tried different approaches . . . they haven’t seemed to work for him except for with his base," Mercieca said.

Speaking to a split Congress

When Trump delivers his speech from the podium of the U.S. House chambers he’ll be looking out onto a Congress divided by a GOP-controlled Senate and a Democratic majority House.

The president also will see before him a chamber whose demographics have changed after the midterm election ushered in the youngest and most diverse freshman class of legislators. He’ll also be forced to share screen time with Pelosi, who will be seated behind the president along with Vice President Mike Pence.

“The visual of who is serving in Congress will be significant,” said Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency. “I think a lot of people will also be looking at the dynamic between Speaker Pelosi and President Trump . . . the visuals of how the speaker of the House responds to his speech . . . I don’t think the speaker will hide disagreement.”

Vanessa Beasley, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University, said Trump will likely “attempt to demonstrate to Democrats that he is still their formidable opponent, that he is still tough.”

2020 outlook

Tuesday’s speech comes at the midpoint of Trump’s first term in office, as the field of Democratic presidential contenders continues to grow ahead of the 2020 presidential race.

Bose said Trump and his speechwriters will “without a doubt” have 2020 in mind when piecing together the speech and laying out new initiatives.

“Certainly the White House is looking ahead to 2020 and what happens in 2019, the policy decisions in 2019, and how that helps the president’s candidacy,” Bose said.

Economic boasting

White House counsel Kellyanne Conway, speaking to reporters on Monday, said Trump will use the speech to tout a dip in unemployment figures and the benefits of his 2017 tax plan in their everyday lives.

“The American people see the results. They either have more money in their pockets . . . or they know people who have” seen positive results from the new tax code, said Conway.

The message of economic prosperity might conflict with the images and stories that emerged amid the shutdown as government workers stood in food bank lines and spoke of rationing their medication, said Beasley who studies political rhetoric.

“The challenge is that he is giving this speech just a few days after the shutdown ended, meaning that most viewers can probably still remember watching multiple government employees being interviewed on television talking about how hard it was to make ends meet during that time,” said Beasley.

International agenda

In the past two months Trump has announced the withdrawal of troops from Syria — to the consternation of his national security advisers — declared his intent to meet for a second time with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and has backed efforts to force Venezuela’s leader Nicolás Maduro out of office.

The president is expected to lay out more of his foreign policy plans in the speech, and world leaders are sure to be tuning in, said Mercieca.  

“Trump is able to make pronouncements at any moment on his Twitter and he does that . . . this is an opportunity for him to make considered . . . well-crafted and thought-out foreign policy announcements . . .,” Mercieca said.

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