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Trump's Last Speech to Congress Was Remarkably Unremarkable

Donald Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address tomorrow. Last year's (well-received) speech before Congress can serve as a blueprint for what we can expect to hear.
U.S. President Donald Trump answers questions from the press during a meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office on October 10th, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will deliver his first State of the Union address, although his address to a joint session of Congress last February fulfilled a similar function. What might we expect to see from this president who seems determined to break with norms at every opportunity? Actually, if last year's address is any guide, this is one event where Trump clings very closely to longstanding presidential traditions.

In that address, Trump did what most modern presidents have done with their State of the Union speeches: He worked from a prepared text, deviating from it only very rarely.

What's more, that text bore important similarities to those of Trump's predecessors. It started off in a conciliatory tone, making overtures to African Americans marking Black History Month and Jewish Americans concerned about a recent spate of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries. "We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms," said Trump, taking a tone very different from that of his campaign and the preceding months of his presidency (in particular the comments he made after Charlottesville).

Trump went on to set the stage for his policy proposals, arguing that the middle class had been shrinking, that environmental and health-care regulations were hurting the American economy, and that the U.S. had been focusing more on repairing societies abroad than its own cities. He then proceeded to outline a plan to address some of these issues, promising to construct pipelines, reduce coal regulations, pull the U.S. out of some international agreements, build a wall on the Mexican border, tightly vet immigrants, repeal Obamacare, and so forth. One could dispute his portrayal of the facts or the degree to which his proposals would address the problems he described, but this aspect of the speech was very much in line with what modern presidents have done.

He then employed the device favored by presidents since Ronald Reagan—highlighting notable guests and heroes in the gallery in service of his policy agenda. He mentioned Maureen Scalia, the widow of Justice Antonin ScaliaNeil Gorsuch, the man whose appointment to replace the late Scalia was awaiting confirmation in the Senate; and Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who had recently died in a controversial raid in Yemen that Trump authorized. The audience applauded Carryn Owens at length, prompting Trump to ad-lib, "Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he's very happy because I think he just broke a record."

Despite the unseemliness of telling a recent widow what her dead husband would be thinking at that moment and claiming he'd broke a record for the length of the applause, this was, again, very much in line with what presidents do at congressional addresses. He used convenient and emotionally laden symbols and heroes to bolster support for his policy agenda.

Did the speech "work"? It depends what we expect such an address to accomplish. State of the Union addresses generally don't see massive shifts in presidential popularity—Trump's own approval rating may have jumped by around a point in the wake of that speech. He has had some modest successes and some very notable failures in enacting his policy agenda over the past year, but it's not clear that this speech made much of a difference in that regard. Congress, with slim (and often internally divided) Republican majorities, has largely set the policy agenda over the past year and passed what it could, a task sometimes hampered by Trump's own inconsistent and evolving stances.

But the speech did achieve its short-term goal: It garnered fawning coverage from political reporters eager for a story that didn't revolve purely around Trump's shocking rhetoric. "This is Trump at his absolute best so far," Chris Cillizza said. Frequent Trump critic Ana Navarro remarked: "You can disagree with him on policy, but this is most presidential Trump has ever sounded. If I had amnesia, I might even forget he is insane." Another regular Trump critic, Van Jones, famously said of Trump's salute to Carryn Owens: "He became president of the United States in that moment."

The positive Trump news cycle didn't last very long. Within a few days, he'd managed to step on that glowing coverage by tweeting defenses of Jeff Sessions, calling Chuck Schumer (D-New York) a "total hypocrite," and demanding an investigation of Nancy Pelosi's Russia ties. Given the erratic, norm-shattering behavior that has been the hallmark of his presidency (the porn star hush money story, the news that Trump ordered the firing of Robert Mueller, the "shithole countries" comment, the government shutdown, the "Fake News Awards," Trump mocking the size of Kim Jong Un's "button," and more, all happened just in 2018), claims that Trump "became president" at that moment last February seem startlingly naive.

Nonetheless, in that speech last year, he acted like modern presidents normally do. We can expect him to do much the same this week, earning glowing but short-lived praise, with his long-term popularity and prospects largely unaffected.