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Commentary: What to look for at Trump's joint session address

What to expect from Trump's speech
What to expect from Trump's speech 03:57

Tonight, the President will address both Houses of Congress in what will be, essentially, his first State of the Union address. And the first thing to watch for is what happens when the Sergeant-at-Arms announces him and he enters the hall.

Will the representatives and senators greet him warmly? Will they look to take him, whisper a private joke, and laugh for the cameras?

Will they try and look like they’re his friend, in other words, knowing that folks back home are watching – or will it be a tad chillier, indicating that they know he’s toxic in blue- and purple-districts, and that they should keep their distance? When Trump walks in, will the only ones grabbing at him be Republicans safely ensconced in deep-red districts?

Here are a few other things to look for at during Trump’s big speech tonight.

Will he extend an olive branch to the Democrats?

A new president’s first joint address tends to not be all that overtly partisan; in 2008, for example, Barack Obama stuck largely to a conciliatory, optimistic tone, and was rewarded with several standing ovations from Republicans.

Trump, however, is as a rule not all that big on following precedent. Over at The Washington Post, Hugh Hewitt imagines Trump repeatedly praising Democrats like Obama and Chuck Schumer while also inviting the Congressional Black Caucus over to The White House. That would be nice if it happened, so let’s assume it probably won’t.

Still, it would be odd if Trump didn’t at least play nice with the Democrats a little bit. And given his love of sowing discord in enemy ranks, it’s easy to see why he might try to elevate and praise Bernie Sanders, the de facto leader of the Democrats’ left wing, which just saw their preferred candidate lose the DNC race.

It’s a little tougher to see what common ground he could find with Democrats. Perhaps he’ll go out of his way to condemn racism and anti-Semitism, particularly given the recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries.

More JCC threats, cemetery vandalism amid FBI... 01:37

Trump is a consistent beneficiary of low expectations, and a full-throated condemnation of bigotry Tuesday night might catch critics by surprise. Or maybe, realizing his coziness with Russia isn’t doing him many favors, he speaks out against Vladimir Putin. Doing either might help alleviate concerns in the press and among his more moderate supporters.

Will he attack the press?

Short answer: probably. The White House clearly thinks its regular shots at media folk is a winning strategy, and given what most Americans think of the press, they might be right.

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal has 53 percent saying that the media has been too hard on Trump even though he’s unpopular. Interestingly, according to the poll, one-in-five Democrats think journalists aren’t treating him fairly, along with the overwhelming majority of Republicans. The press is the easiest, most convenient target this administration has, so why wouldn’t he whack us at every opportunity?

Can Trump credibly sell a tax cut that will mostly affect high earners and corporations?

The one thing that should be easiest for the Republicans to pass is some sort of tax cut. Unfortunately for them, slashing taxes for top earners doesn’t really gel with Trump’s populist message, and isn’t really a popular position. Similarly, plenty of economists will tell you the corporate tax rate is way too high, but there just aren’t many voters looking to alleviate Wal-Mart’s tax burden.

The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis has an interesting piece looking at how tax cuts could be sold to Congress and the public. Still, it could be a lift politically, particularly because Trump is the richest man ever elected – and a guy who may have not actually paid his taxes in some time. “President who won’t release taxes demands tax cut for rich” isn’t a great headline for any White House, and given Trump’s limited political capital, it will be interesting to see how much he’s willing to spend on the issue.

What does he say about Obamacare?

Why did the Democrats pick former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to make their response to Trump’s speech? Having retired from politics, Beshear is not youthful, or particularly charismatic. He’s not a progressive firebrand like Elizabeth Warren of Al Franken, and is to the right of his party’s inflamed base.

Future of Obamacare 00:54

But he was a popular Democratic governor of a deep red state that went easily for Trump. And more importantly, he championed Obamacare in his state and presided over a relatively well-run system there. Democrats see Obamacare as a winning issue right now, and it’s enjoying a burst of support in the polls. Trump ran as the guy who wasn’t going to let people “die in the street,” and his party can’t seem to figure out what exactly they want to replace it with. 

So Trump has to tread carefully. Does he try to sound conciliatory on the issue, and say that it was fine in theory but a loser in practice? Does he go into any detail about what he wants to keep? Or does he stick to his bumper-sticker rhetoric about replacing it, and quickly move on to topics where the GOP is on firmer ground?

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