The Washington Post's Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker and Chris Cillizza explain what President Trump wants to accomplish in his first joint address to Congress on Feb. 28. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)


President Trump’s big speech to Congress on Tuesday night is being widely treated as an effort to “sell” his presidency, amid low approval numbers, ongoing outbreaks of domestic protest and discontent, and an agenda that has hit the skids on many fronts. As CNN puts it: “The speech … will be Trump’s biggest national audience since his swearing-in ceremony, a chance to try to bring the nation together and sell his agenda on Capitol Hill.”

But at bottom, the problem Trump faces is pretty simple: The American people are largely rejecting Trump’s agenda, both in its conventional Republican and more Trumpist elements, and the policy specifics and rationales that have been put forth to flesh it out thus far range from weak sauce to outright gibberish.

In his speech, Trump is expected to strike an “optimistic” tone while he mostly doubles down on Trumpism as a broad vision. In keeping with the White House’s forthcoming budget, which dramatically boosts defense spending, Trump will send a “message to the world in these dangerous times of American strength, security and resolve.” Trump will also likely renew his push for a travel ban and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

It is perfectly possible that Trump’s speech will be well received by the American public. But the problem here runs far deeper than the need for a good sales pitch: There are no serious indications that the White House either knows or cares how unpopular his policies are thus far with the broad American mainstream.

Consider Joshua Green’s new, well-reported piece for Bloomberg Businessweek on the Trump brain trust’s thinking. It contains the usual stuff about Trump’s grand plan to empower American workers by getting rid of more undocumented immigrants, restricting legal immigration, renegotiating trade deals, cutting taxes and regulations on corporations, and so forth. It’s a conventional GOP anti-tax, anti-regulatory agenda, combined with more Trumpist and nationalist immigration and (supposedly pro-worker) trade policies. Much of this has been met with a backlash. But White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon sees the media as the main enemy of that agenda:

“I’m very sorry that the mainstream media does not like President Trump’s agenda,” Bannon says. “But they are going to have to embrace the fact that they, as the opposition party, who tried to destroy Donald Trump as a candidate, lost. And they lost significantly, OK? So they’re going to have to sit there, and they’re going to have to deal with the implementation of Donald Trump’s agenda.”

As always, only the elite media opposes Trump’s agenda, while Real America is quietly rooting for Trumpism to succeed. But polls have shown that majorities reject Trump’s travel ban and Mexican border wall. That majorities still favor legalization of undocumented immigrants and that only a tiny minority thinks they should be required to leave. That majorities or pluralities now approve of the Affordable Care Act and that opinion is tilting against repeal (and the GOP hasn’t even rolled out its “replacement” yet). That slightly more Americans approve of NAFTA than disapprove of it, raising doubts as to any great public clamor for Trump to renegotiate our trade deals. While polls have shown approval of Trump on the economy in general, his forthcoming plans for deep tax cuts for the rich combined with deep safety net cuts will also likely be unpopular.

White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Feb. 23. Bannon said the media is "adamantly opposed to" the president's agenda. (The Washington Post)

Then there are the massive public protests that have greeted GOP lawmakers over the health law and the outpouring of public opposition to Trump’s executive order banning refugees and migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. In the Bloomberg piecesomeone close to Bannon explains the latter this way:

It was no accident that the order was sprung without warning on a Friday afternoon. … Bannon arranged the timing in the expectation that opponents, freed from work on the weekend, would stage huge protests — drawing maximum attention and galvanizing Trump supporters as the president followed through on a controversial campaign promise, says a senior administration official.

Let’s call this the Bannon Disruption Feedback Loop, in which any and all chaos and disruption unleashed by whatever Trump does at Bannon’s orchestration only confirms Bannon’s fiendish brilliance. Despite all the chatter about Bannon being an ingenious maestro of disruption, in reality, the rollout of the ban, which was blocked in court, was a major fiasco, and Bannon’s handling of the whole process was a key reason why.

The deeper problem here is that Trump’s agenda is not just unpopular; it is being undermined by flimsy rationales and policy confusion and incompetence. Trump will reintroduce his travel ban, but an internal Department of Homeland Security memo recently concluded that its national security justification is weak. His health-care push is being undermined by the fact that the White House apparently doesn’t want to be seen kicking millions off coverage, even as there is no congressional GOP replacement available that will not do that, and this problem has somehow caught people off guard. (“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated!” Trump exclaimed, idiotically.) Trump’s new budget priorities are being dismissed as hocus-pocus even by former GOP budgeteers. And so forth.

How far can Trump’s speech — or Bannon’s bluster — go in altering these fundamental underlying problems?


* TRUMP’S WHOPPING DEFENSE SPENDING INCREASE: Trump’s budget calls for a $54 billion increase in defense spending, and CNN puts this in context:

Raising defense spending by $54 billion is about a 10% defense spending increase … that dollar amount is larger than the complete funding for most other federal agencies. The US is set to spend $36 billion total on foreign aid in 2017. The entire budget requested by the State Department for 2017 was about $50 billion. That request will have to come down to meet Trump’s goal.

As Colin Kahl, an adviser on national security under President Barack Obama, puts it: “Trump’s proposed increase in the Pentagon budget, by itself, is more than the ENTIRE State Dept budget.” America first!

* TRUMP PLANS CUTS TO STATE DEPARTMENT: The Post reports that Trump’s budget could cut the State Department’s funding by as much as 30 percent:

The cut to State Department funding comes on top of several signals that the White House is reducing the role and influence of the department and the diplomatic corps.

More than 120 retired three- and four-star generals sent a letter to House and Senate leaders protesting any large reduction in funding for diplomacy.

“Elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe,” they wrote.

Diplomacy is for America-last weaklings and globalist weenies.

* BUDGET OFFERS DEEP EPA CUTS, BUT WILL REPUBLICANS GO ALONG? The New York Times reports that Trump’s budget will contain a whopping 24 percent cut to the EPA, and observes:

While congressional Republicans have long targeted the E.P.A.’s regulatory authority, they are also aware that about half the agency’s annual budget is passed through to popular state-level programs, like converting abandoned industrial sites into sports stadiums and other public facilities, which lawmakers of both parties are loath to cut.

And if the cuts target environmental and public health regs, they could be unpopular, and some Republicans might have trouble supporting them, no matter how much they rail about “big government.”

* TRUMP’S REAL PRIORITIES, ON FULL DISPLAY: Trump’s budget would exempt Medicare and Social Security, while deeply cutting other government programs. Ron Brownstein explains the bigger story here:

By so overtly favoring retirement spending over other domestic federal programs, Trump has underscored the generational competition for resources that … represents a central if often unacknowledged tension in budget debates. Most of the key federal investments in the productivity of future generations are made through discretionary programs, like those that support education, training and scientific research.

The federal government’s support for seniors, by contrast, mostly flows through the giant entitlement programs for the elderly.

Right now, Brownstein notes, those “future generations” are more likely to vote Democratic, while the elderly are an important part of the GOP coalition that elected Trump.

* TRUMP: ‘REVVED UP ECONOMY’ WILL FUND DEFENSE BOOST: Here’s where the money is coming from to fund that boost in defense spending, according to Trump, in an interview Tuesday morning:

“I think the money is going to come from a revved up economy … I mean you look at the kind of numbers we’re doing, we were probably GDP of a little more than 1 percent and if I can get that up to 3 or maybe more, we have a whole different ball game. It’s a whole different ball game.”

That should be easy to achieve, once Trump gets the enormous tax cuts for the rich he’s seeking.

* GOP GOVERNORS WORRIED ABOUT ACA REPLACEMENT: Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor of Nevada, is worried that the GOP replacement for Obamacare might kick his own constituents off coverage:

“Of course I am concerned,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor of Nevada, where about 300,000 people have gained Medicaid coverage. “I am someone who elected to expand Medicaid. That’s been very beneficial to my state, and I want to be sure those individuals can keep their coverage.”

The ACA has been beneficial to his state? Whoa. More than 20 GOP senators come from states that expanded Medicaid. Will they worry about their own constituents losing coverage, too?

* TRUMP QUOTE OF THE DAY, SO-MUCH-WINNING EDITION: Trump has justified his call for an enormous boost in defense spending this way:

“We have to start winning wars again. … I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember? … And now we never win a war. We never win. And don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win. We’ve either got to win or don’t fight at all.”

That sounds like a winning strategy.