When the President Speaks, Who’ll Listen?

February 23, 2017

Next Tuesday night, the House of Representatives’ sergeant at arms, Paul D. Irving, will appear in the back door of the chamber and proclaim: “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States!” Democrats will rise sullenly as Republicans jump to their feet with cheers. Some will crowd the center aisle to shake the hand of President Donald J. Trump as he makes his way to the rostrum to address a joint session of Congress.

Because Mr. Trump has just taken office, this won’t be officially a State of the Union speech. That will come next year, as Mr. Trump fulfills his constitutional duty to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Instead, Tuesday’s address is an opportunity Congress affords the new president to deepen their relationship.

The best the White House should expect from the Democrats in the room is quiet, seething anger. That’s fine: Mr. Trump’s speechwriters should appeal to congressional Republicans, who alternate between hope and dread regarding the new administration.

There are plenty of reasons for hope. Republicans like many of the president’s cabinet appointments, his Supreme Court pick, and his vocal support for overhauling the tax code and fixing health care. Also encouraging are his executive orders approving pipelines, providing regulatory relief, strengthening the military, combating terrorism, reducing ObamaCare’s burdens, and promoting a culture of life. The obvious exception—his bungled immigration order—is being fixed.

The dread comes whenever the president starts a Twitter war or nurses needless controversies that obscure substantive progress. Still, many Republicans in Congress have never served under a president of their own party, and they long to enact a conservative agenda. Those who do remember what it’s like to have an ally in the White House yearn for close cooperation again.

President Trump can draw infinitely more attention to conservative issues than can congressional Republicans. That’s why Republicans want Mr. Trump to remind Americans on Tuesday of ObamaCare’s shortcomings and to sketch its replacement well enough that voters believe the GOP has real ideas to improve health care.

The same goes for tax reform. Stock markets have risen sharply since the election in part because investors expect that corporate and personal tax cuts will strengthen the economy. So Republicans want Mr. Trump to explain the principles of their tax-reform effort and what it will means for jobs and paychecks. Even better if the legislative details are left to congressional committees and the Treasury Department to wrangle.

Mr. Trump should also keep in mind Tuesday those Americans who are not part of his core base but who might be open to supporting him.

The president likes quoting his job-approval number in the Rasmussen poll—51% as of Wednesday. But the RealClearPolitics average of 10 recent polls puts Mr. Trump’s standing at 44.4% approval and 50.5% disapproval. Most recent polls say more Americans disapprove of Mr. Trump than approve, giving him historically low ratings for a new president.

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Team Trump’s challenge is illustrated in a survey this month from CBS and YouGov. The poll found that 22% of Americans see themselves as strong Trump supporters, “period.” Another 22% are Trump supporters, “but to keep my support he has to deliver what I want.” Meantime, 21% are “against Trump now, but could reconsider him if he does a good job.” A little more than a third of respondents oppose the president, “period.”

To expand his appeal beyond his core supporters on Tuesday, Mr. Trump must persuade the skeptical. That means focusing on the economy, offering a unifying and positive tone rather than a divisive and dark one, and sticking to his text rather than freewheeling. He should also look forward. The closer Mr. Trump’s speech is in style and substance to his remarks at last weekend’s campaign-style Florida rally, the less likely his approval numbers are to rise.

“Public sentiment is everything,” Abraham Lincoln said during a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858. “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” Right now, public sentiment is not on Mr. Trump’s side. Tuesday is an excellent opportunity to recalibrate after a haywire first month. He would be smart to take advantage of this window to reshape public opinion. It might be smaller than he thinks.

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