State of the Union 2019: What to watch

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After a 35-day partial government shutdown that prompted the House speaker to postpone Donald Trump's State of the Union address, the President will finally...

Posted: Feb 5, 2019 7:57 AM

After a 35-day partial government shutdown that prompted the House speaker to postpone Donald Trump's State of the Union address, the President will finally arrive Tuesday night on Capitol Hill.

The President is expected to frame his policy agenda for the coming year and reiterate last year's appeal to bipartisanship, but the prospect of a government shutdown will not be completely behind him. Delivering the speech at the midway point of a three-week reprieve, his message will be colored by the prospect of yet another shutdown.

And the makeup of the House chamber -- with Democrats newly in the majority and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the chair behind him -- will also be very much on display.

Here's what to watch for:

Shutdown plans? A national emergency?

The President has deplored the bipartisan and bicameral budget negotiations taking place amid the short-term spending bill as a "waste of time" and indicated in recent days that he is once again leaning toward taking executive action to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.

And he has teased a potential announcement during the State of the Union address.

Asked on Friday whether he would declare a national emergency during his speech, Trump said, "I don't want to say," and instead urged reporters to tune in to the speech.

"You'll hear the State of the Union," the President said. "And then you'll see what happens right after the State of the Union."

Still, Trump has indicated that any executive action would come at the end of the three-week negotiating period, saying in recent interviews that he has "set the table beautifully" to take action on February 15, the deadline for another agreement to keep the government open. And White House officials have indicated Trump is not expected to declare a national emergency during his Tuesday evening address.

Optics

There will be no better indication of the dramatic swing in the balance of power in Washington than the presence of Pelosi.

Rather than Republican Paul Ryan, Pelosi will for the first time in this administration take her prominent position as House speaker, seated just behind Trump's left shoulder for the speech.

Her presence will be a reminder to the President and to the country of Democrats' new position of power in Washington, which they are beginning to exercise this week with a series of new hearings and investigations into the Trump administration.

And instead of majorities in the House and Senate, the President will face a majority of Democratic lawmakers during his speech -- a makeup that is sure to swing the applause-o-meter and amplify the sense of political division around the country.

Astute political observers will also be looking to the coterie of potential and announced 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who will be in the audience. What lines will prompt applause from Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren? Who will Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand bring as guests?

The President and first lady's guests, announced by the White House on Monday evening, will complement his remarks by representing a wide variety of issues, including the economy, the opioid epidemic, immigration and criminal justice.

A bipartisan appeal?

The theme of Tuesday's speech, a senior administration official told reporters in a Friday briefing, is "choosing greatness," and the President is expected to make an appeal for unity in a "bipartisan, optimistic" tone for his first State of the Union address to a divided Congress.

According to an excerpt, the President will say: "Together, we can break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America's future."

The speech will urge Democrats to work with Republicans on immigration, infrastructure, lowering drug prices and other areas.

Trump also appealed for unity in much of his address last year -- only to revert to his attacks against Democrats, on Twitter and elsewhere, within days of the speech.

"This President is going to call for an end to the politics of resistance, retribution and call for more comity -- c-o-m-i-t-y," counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway said Monday.

"He's calling for cooperation, and he's calling for comity, c-o-m-i-t-y, and also compromise. And he's going to point out a couple of examples of where this has actually happened on his watch," she added. "I think it's also an address that celebrates so many accomplishments for the United States of America that he would like to highlight as the leader of our nation."

Critics listening to the speech, Conway said, "should listen to the message, not always just look at the messenger," and look for ways to work together.

White House spin

Before the speech even begins, the White House is working to coordinate and shape the media's response to it.

In the Roosevelt Room on Monday evening, Vice President Mike Pence, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Conway briefed surrogates who are expected to speak about the address on television and radio about themes of unity in the address, multiple sources close to the White House said. The President stopped by to give a pep talk, as well.

Trump was "in a good mood, very upbeat," and thanked the surrogates for their continued support, per one source in the room.

Other aides are preparing fact sheets and messaging documents to distribute in support of the address -- standard public relations exercises for any White House, but a sign that the State of the Union is one of the rare events the Trump White House approaches in a traditional, coordinated and structured way.

The address is also being used as a fundraising tool for the President's re-election campaign, soliciting input from supporters.

"Tomorrow, I will stand before YOU, the citizens of this great nation, and give my second Official State of the Union Address as President. Nancy & Chuck don't want me to speak, Mainstream Media outlets don't want me to speak, and the Hollywood Elites don't want me to speak. But I know, YOU want me to speak," Trump wrote in an email to his campaign's distribution list.

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