Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Here's What To Watch For When Trump Addresses Congress

President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24.
Getty Images
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 24.

Tuesday night, President Trump will address a joint session of Congress for the first time. After a chaotic first month, it will be a chance for Trump to reset his relationship with voters, who currently give him historically-low approval ratings.

It will also be a chance for him to reassure congressional Republicans, whose view of the new administration runs the gamut from optimism to unease.

Here are five things to watch for when Trump goes to Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

1. Where we've come and where we're going

That's how White House press secretary Sean Spicer described what Trump will discuss on Tuesday night. It may sound vague, but Trump will certainly list his achievements, much as he did in his marathon "I'm not ranting and raving" press conference. He'll present himself as a man of action, who said what he meant and is now making good on his promises.

Trump will likely repeat his claim that he "inherited a mess" — even though no president in 20 years has been left a healthier economy. And he'll take credit for everything from a booming stock market to the decisions of American companies like Carrier or Intel to retain U.S. jobs or hire new workers.

This weekend, Trump congratulated himself for a drop in the budget deficit after his first month in office. Though, since he hasn't signed any spending bills into law yet, it's hard to see how that had anything to do with him.

2. 'American carnage' or 'renewal of the American spirit?'

The speech, like Trump's inaugural address, will be written by Stephen Miller. But the White House says the tone will be very different.

The inaugural speech was a dark, dystopian vision of American decline. Its theme was something like "the blowtorch has been passed to a new generation." This one, White House aides say, will be sunny and optimistic — more opportunity, less Armageddon.

But previews from Trump aides have not always panned out. For instance, we were told his inaugural address would focus on unity. It didn't.

With his approval ratings hovering in the low forties, the White House may have decided that a little more inclusion and a little less divisiveness might help. So far, Trump has been speaking almost exclusively to his base, which is loyal and enthusiastic no matter what he does.

But the period of executive orders is over. Trump has done almost all he can unilaterally. If he wants to pass legislation, he will need Congress and in some cases Democratic votes. So watch to see if Trump tries to reach out.

3. Policy details, anyone?

Donald Trump is not a policy wonk, so don't expect him to talk specifics about health care or tax reform or infrastructure. But these big set speeches to Congress are about policy guidance, and Republicans want to know where he stands on their big legislative goals.

On replacing Obamacare, Republicans have put themselves in a box. If they want to pay for tax cuts, they need to get trillions of dollars from somewhere. There's money to be had in health insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion established by the Affordable Care Act, but if Republicans unravel Obamacare they will be held responsible when millions of people, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, lose their coverage.

What guidance will Trump give them? The latest word from the White House is that "the goal is that we make sure that people don't lose their coverage," as deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it to ABC's This Week on Sunday.

4. Tax reform or tax cuts?

Tax cuts that don't expire after ten years need 60 votes to pass in the Senate. But they have to be paid for.

Tax reform, which lowers rates but also gets rid of deductions, could be revenue neutral or even produce revenue that could be used for Trump's big infrastructure program.

Is Trump a tax cutter or a tax reformer? He talked about getting rid of deductions during the campaign, but hasn't said much since. All of the Republican tax plans skew their benefits to the wealthy. Will Trump repeat the pledge of his new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, that the rich will not get an "absolute tax cut."

Then there's the border adjustment tax, basically a tax on imports. This is at the heart of Paul Ryan's tax plan and it would raise a lot of money. But the idea has split the GOP business coalition. Retailers like Walmart who rely on imports hate it, while many manufacturers love it.

Trump had been critical of the idea, saying in the past that it was "too complicated." But lately he has sounded warmer, saying in a Reuters interview last week, "It could lead to a lot more jobs in the United States."

Or Trump might send a signal that "paying for things" is just not necessary. Deficits have been a focus of conservative, small-government Republicans. That's not Donald Trump.

5. How will Democrats react?

Probably by sitting on their hands.

They are fierce and united in their opposition to Trump. This will be an unusual audience for him, as the president is used to speaking to crowds that love him. On Tuesday, nearly half the crowd will be sullen — if not seething. Democrats are also planning to bring guests who are a rebuke to the president's policies — Muslim refugees, Hispanic immigrants, relatives of victims of gun violence and others.

Plus, one of the two official Democratic responses to the speech will be delivered in Spanish by DREAMer and immigration activist Astrid Silva. The other will be delivered by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who served in a state with a lot of coal miners, championed by Trump, where Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act extended coverage to hundreds of thousands of people.

The message from that pair of responses will be that the Democrats don't have to choose between two groups — minorities and others that have been marginalized historically, and white working-class voters who delivered a victory to Trump.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.