Trump to Test Political Base With Bipartisan Call in Key Speech

(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday will be one of the president’s last, best chances to win over more of the American public to his nationalist agenda ahead of midterm elections that will be a referendum on his tumultuous administration.

White House officials say the president will dial back his signature combative posture and instead frame his policy proposals — from immigration to infrastructure — as areas where Democrats and Republicans can work together. Trump will still take ample time to argue that the U.S. economy has been revitalized by policies that have had little to no bipartisan appeal, including the tax overhaul and efforts to curb regulations.

“He will talk about the fact that America is open for business and the president will also make an appeal to Democrats to say we need to rebuild our country and make an appeal that you do infrastructure,” White House legislative director Marc Short said on “Fox News Sunday.” “We need to do it in a bipartisan way.”

Low Ratings

Trump will enter the House chamber Tuesday night as the most unpopular modern president to deliver his first State of the Union speech. He’s averaged just a 38-percent approval rating over his first year in office, according to Gallup. White House aides are marshaling allies to spread the word about the change in tone, and the direction of his prime-time address is a tacit admission that Trump’s approach to governing so far has done little to endear him to voters outside of his base.

Damaging revelations from the probe into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia have been matched by controversies of the president’s making, with many Americans dismayed by his handling of racial issues, attacks on the media, and subverting of political norms. The result of that constant disarray, fanned by regular West Wing backstabbing in the press and a relentless series of political missteps, is a president and party who voters are resistant to crediting even for successes, including recent economic gains.

“The guy has performed so poorly and he has created such animus and a cloud of suspicion about him,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “The essential element for any president is credibility. If you’re not a credible or reliable spokesperson for himself, how can you govern in this country?”

‘Pound His Chest’

The White House hopes to combat that sentiment with a speech arguing that the accomplishments of the administration’s first year were the unprecedented result of a unique president, and that economic growth has lifted up the entire country. Organized around the theme of “building a safe, strong, and proud America,” according to two senior administration officials, the president’s tone will be optimistic as he argues that he cares about improving life for all Americans.

Ultimately, Trump will need to reconcile his message that the nation is on the upswing with the prevailing sentiment that he’s taking the country in the wrong direction, Dallek said.

“I’m sure he’s going to talk about the economy and how terrific the stock market has been and he will pound his chest as he usually does as to his achievements, that he’s a great man and a great president,” Dallek said. But viewers will balance that message against a president who “seems to thrive on combativeness and fighting with people and diminishing them to make himself feel better.”

Crumbling Roads

In the speech, Trump is expected to address his plans for rebuilding the nation’s crumbling bridges, roads and airports, long viewed by Republicans and Democrats as a potential area of bipartisan support. DJ Gribbin, Trump’s infrastructure adviser, said last week that the administration plans to send its proposal to Congress in the coming weeks.

The White House plan would rely on leveraging at least $200 billion in federal money over 10 years to get states, localities and the private sector to pour at least $800 billion into infrastructure projects. Administration officials have said the largest share of funding would be cash grants, with preference given to places that use taxes, tolls or other revenue to reduce reliance on federal funding.

Democrats have said $200 billion isn’t nearly enough federal investment to meet the nation’s needs. Gribbin said the White House is “open to conversations” on that point.

‘Burdensome Regulations’

The president may also unveil plans to streamline regulatory approvals, in what he’s pitched as a bid to get infrastructure projects moving faster and decrease the burden on developers. Opponents say that Trump is cutting more than needless red tape, and instead is threatening basic environmental and safety regulations that ensure roads, bridges, and pipelines are properly assessed for their potential impact.

On Sunday, the White House denied it was considering changes that could leave the environment vulnerable.

“The administration has no plans to gut the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act,” Short said. “What you’ve seen really over the last year is, by rolling back the burdensome regulations the previous administration had put in place, the economy has taken off.”

Trump will also address immigration, a policy area where Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided and was the main sticking point in this month’s government shutdown.

DACA and the Wall

Trump’s plan would offer deportation protection and a pathway to citizenship for as many as 1.8 million people under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. In exchange, the White House wants $25 billion for construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and for additional border and port security.

The president also wants to limit a program that gives preferential status to the families of U.S. citizens and immigrants, and to eliminate the visa lottery program.

Short said approving wall funding and other parts of the Trump’s proposal would prevent future clashes over young undocumented immigrants. That, he said, would make them worthwhile trade-offs for offering a pathway to citizenship, which many conservatives decry.

“I think conservatives recognize the benefit to really securing our border and helping to fix these long-term problems,” Short said. “We’re going to get widespread support on our side.”

Taunting Democrats

Yet, Trump on Saturday appeared reluctant to commit to the bipartisan tone aides say he will strike. In two late-night tweets, the president said he’s offered a “wonderful” deal because Republicans want to fix the problem and “to show that Democrats do not want to solve DACA, only use it!”

“Democrats are not interested in Border Safety & Security or in the funding and rebuilding of our Military,” Trump said on Twitter. “They are only interested in Obstruction!”

Trump may also offer greater clarity on trade. His protectionist leanings have kept him at odds with the establishment side of his Republican Party. He walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a Pacific Rim trade pact, during his first week in office, and this month slapped tariffs on solar-panel and washing machine imports. Trump is considering similar actions on aluminum and steel imports to bolster U.S. manufacturers.

Foreign Policy

Tuesday’s address comes a day after the sixth round of North American Free Trade Agreement talks is set to conclude in Montreal. Trump has called the current deal “horrible” for U.S. businesses and left open the possibility that he might exit the 24-year-old pact if discussions aren’t favorable to the U.S. — though people familiar with the matter said he won’t do that in Tuesday’s speech.

The speech is nearly certain to include a significant portion of foreign policy, with Trump seeking to burnish his resume in an area where many voters give him low marks. Just 38 percent of Americans approve of the way Trump is handling foreign policy, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week, with a majority — 55 percent — disapproving.

That’s driven in no small part by the president’s high-stakes spat with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom Trump has taunted as “Little Rocket Man.” Trump is likely to strike a more measured tone on Tuesday, and could again signal his openness to direct talks with North Korea under the right circumstances.

Trump is likely to highlight his the significant loss of territory by Islamic State fighters, including coalition victories in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, and attribute those successes to his decision to loosen the rules of engagement.

Not only Americans will be listening to Trump for clues. “Every leader in the world is trying to figure out where the United States is going,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“I still think the president is struggling to articulate what American leadership means. The president’s big challenge has been how to lead in ways that people are eager to follow.”

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