The Post's national political correspondent Karen Tumulty and senior editor Marc Fisher discussed what they’ll be looking for from the speech in the latest episode of “Can He Do That?” Listen to their full analysis for tips on what to watch for, and how to interpret what you hear, when you watch the State of Union.
Here are some of the topics they’ll be paying attention to:
Fisher: One thing that would be something of surprise is if the president did launch a real attack on the Democrats. We certainly saw during the whole discussion about the government shutdown — we got a good taste of Donald Trump's great penchant for going hard against his opponents, and this was the “Schumer shutdown” as far as the president was concerned. Will he now offer any kind of an olive leaf to the Democrats? It's hard to imagine him doing that just a few days after that big confrontation. But it's possible.
Tumulty: Of course there will be a section in the speech for international relations. He will be coming just from this big economic meeting in Davos where the nationalist president of the United States will be speaking to the globalist community. It will be interesting to hear if he has a different kind of message coming back from that. And of course what he has to say about things like North Korea and the Middle East, if he has any sort of new ideas or just in general whether he's taking a truculent or a more calming attitude towards them.
Tumulty: He's going into this speech with a lot of things hanging in the air around him. There is the Russia investigation. There are his recent comments about the types of countries that he would like to see immigrants coming from and the types that he would not. There is the entire change of the whole context around the subject of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. And I can't imagine that he's going to address these things but that is nonetheless going to be the backdrop against how this speech is seen.
Fisher: We've already seen that some women Democrats in the House have talked about having sexual assault or harassment activists, perhaps victims, sitting there in the gallery as a reminder to the president and as a symbol of the national debate we've been having. I would expect the president to ignore that and to ignore that issue entirely. But I think he will counter with the kind of guests that we've seen in the past from him, particularly victims of crimes by illegal immigrants.
And some other key things you should notice as you watch the address:
Fisher: It's important to do some reporting about who is actually writing this speech. We saw last year, and in many of the big moments that Donald Trump has had in the presidency so far, the rhetoric of Stephen Miller, his adviser whose perhaps greatest passion is the immigration issue and the idea of “America first.” He is one of the true believer nationalists in the White House and we've heard that in many of Trump's big speeches. And so even though there will be a need or desire to address the issues of North Korea, Iran, China and of course Russia in this address, we’ll also hear that, I think, in the context of that “America first” approach that Miller likes to tout in all of the president's formal addresses.
Tumulty: You would recall that at various points during President Obama's State of the Union speeches we saw Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito sitting there and shaking his head over the president's comments about the Citizens United decision. We've seen a congressman literally yell out from the audience. I'm wondering if there will be any of those kinds of reactions.
Fisher: The theater is really important. And as the president goes through the laundry list of hopes and dreams, we see the response on TV of both parties — the cheers and the jeers — and usually those are good-hearted cheers and jeers. But this year they may not be quite so good-hearted.
That's where I think we may see some pushback from the Democrats that's not quite in the gentler spirit of past State of the Union addresses. That's where it can get a little touchy and perhaps reveal something about the path forward for this Congress that's going to have to deal in the next year with whatever comes out of the special counsel report on the president's behavior and with the president's excesses on Twitter and in other venues. This is a Congress that in both parties feels rather distant from this president and wary of him at the least. And so I think we'll see that drama playing out in the theater of the Congress.