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What to watch for in Trump’s State of the Union address

Photo: Immigrant families walk along a sidewalk on their way to a respite center after they were processed and released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, on Sunday, June 24, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

On Tuesday night, President Trump will deliver the State of the Union, a speech originally scheduled for Jan. 29, until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rescinded his invitation amid the month-long partial government shutdown.

The occasion marks Trump’s first address to the Democrat-controlled House chamber and follows a contentious partisan battle over his proposed border wall that resulted in the longest government shutdown in American history.

The shutdown, the wall, and the economy

Expect Trump to bring up illegal immigration and border security right off the bat. It’s almost a sure bet that the wall, which has become his signature policy proposal, will be prominently featured in his speech, said Costas Panagopoulos, a political science professor at Northeastern.

The president will likely make a call to action for Congress to come together and defend the funding he’s asking for the wall, said Thomas Vicino, a professor of political science, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern.

“He’ll likely share his perspective on why the shutdown happened and what we need to do to make our country safer,” Vicino said.

He predicted that Trump will use the platform to issue another ultimatum, threatening to declare a national emergency if he doesn’t get funding for the wall. Vicino foresees Trump framing border security as both a problem and an opportunity.

Trump will argue that “without the wall, we have insecure borders, and we have illegal immigration, and we have crime, and we have drug trafficking,” Vicino said. “With the wall, we will be safer. Well be stronger.”

He added, “In his mind, the way to get there is the construction of a physical wall.”

Before launching into border security and the shutdown, Trump is expected to lead with his take on what is going right (or well) under his presidency, namely the economy and low unemployment rate. Foreign policy and his trade agenda are also likely to come up as discussion points, said Panagopoulos. He predicts that Trump will offer updates on where the United States stands in the conflicts in Syria, North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Setting the stage for 2020

Both Trump, in his address, and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who will deliver the Democrats’ rebuttal, are likely to use the State of the Union to sway independent voters.

“I think that the Democratic Party is going to use this as an opportunity to appeal to independent voters to say we need stability in the presidency,” Vicino said. “The Democratic message is we can’t afford to have a government that shuts down.”

Vicino said that Republicans and supporters of Trump, on the other hand, will be quick to dismiss those attacks, pointing to the strong job growth as a reason to empower the president to fulfill his agenda.

“The Democratic response might be that full employment doesn’t mean gainful employment,” said Vicino. “There’s a lot of context there that each side will selectively choose to focus on what serves their purpose in terms of the messaging.”

The Democratic response

The Democrats’ selection of Abrams to deliver the rebuttal is intriguing but not surprising. In November, Abrams made a splash on the Georgia political scene when she ran and narrowly lost against Republican Brian Kemp. As a black woman with a progressive message, Abrams could appeal to both people of color and female politicians, Vicino said.

“She will represent ‘the face’ of the Democratic Party today, and the broad messaging is one around inclusion,” Vicino said. “Obviously it’s the most diverse class we’ve inaugurated in the House, in particular, so I think she’ll proudly own that and will refer to what America looks like today in the 21st century and what our collective issues are.”

Although Abrams, as a candidate who lost a state election, doesn’t have the strongest national profile, Panagopoulos said that there have been instances when political parties have used the rebuttals to showcase individuals they perceived to be rising stars within the party.

The future of divided government

Trump is expected to stress unity and optimism in his address to a deeply divided Congress, according to the White House. Aides said that he plans to call for bipartisan support for infrastructure projects and cutting the cost of prescription drugs. But whether his message of unity resonates with the public remains to be seen, said Panagopoulos and Vicino.

Panagopoulos said he doesn’t see a significant shift occurring in the public’s opinion of the president following the State of the Union. But beyond the substance of Trump’s speech, Panagopoulos said that he will be watching for what kind of tone the president adopts.

“I’ll be looking to see whether or not his approach is confrontational or one that suggests that he truly is willing to work together with Democrats to get things done,” he said.

Vicino said that he, too, plans to observe how Trump conducts himself.

“Do we see a persistence of division, or is there a call to unite and come together for the good of the country?”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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