By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke of unifying the country and delivering for the American people -- and he has the opportunity to back up his words with action almost immediately.
Trump faces a series of policy choices in the next few weeks and months that will show whether he is sincere in his pledge to “seek out common ground” and could also shape his presidency and legacy.
With congressional elections nine months away, Trump’s course of action could decide whether his Republicans maintain control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, or if one or both flip to a Democratic majority, an outcome that would almost certainly derail his policy agenda.
Trump faces near-term deadlines on reaching an agreement to protect young immigrants known as “Dreamers” and on avoiding another government shutdown. He also hopes to muscle an infrastructure bill through a divided Congress.
In his address, Trump pushed a hard line on immigration, insisting on a border wall and other concessions from Democrats, even as he urged lawmakers toward bipartisan compromises.
“Substantively, he didn’t move the needle on policy, but the much sunnier and more optimistic tone was a welcome change,” Michael Steel, a Republican strategist, said of Trump's speech. “Now let’s see if he can and will stick with it.”
The consistency of Trump’s focus and tone has been a serious issue since his term began. A year ago, he delivered a well-received speech to Congress, only to render that an afterthought when he began alleging that former President Barack Obama had ordered his phones wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign.
As he looks for wins on domestic policy issues, Trump's handling of a special counsel's probe of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election will be closely scrutinized.
Media reports that Trump last year considered firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is conducting the Russia investigation, drew new attention to a probe that has hung over Trump since the start of his presidency.
Any move against Mueller or Rod Rosenstein, a top Justice Department official who oversees the probe, would likely spark a political firestorm.
And each day, Trump risks undermining any goodwill he builds with an errant tweet or outburst.
Trump's speech on Tuesday came just a week after he gleefully accused Democrats of losing their nerve during a brief government shutdown. Now, he is asking them to “come together” to solve the nation’s problems.
The address was filled with lofty calls toward a higher duty that transcends party, an ideal that presidents often urge in the State of the Union addresses but rarely fulfill.
“This is, in fact, our new American moment,” Trump said, adding that “all of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family can do anything.”
Trump and Congress face an early February deadline for avoiding another government shutdown over the same issues that led to the last one this month: federal spending and an agreement on a program to protect hundreds of thousands of Dreamers.
Trump devoted the largest portion of his remarks to immigration, saying he was “extending an open hand” to working with both parties toward a comprehensive agreement but also insisting that it include increased border security measures and changes to restrict legal migration programs.
He also called on Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, one that would need Democratic votes to have any chance of survival.
As the congressional elections approach, Trump remains mired at about 40 percent approval in polls, a historic low for a president this early in his tenure.
Trump was, in fact, speaking to two audiences on Tuesday: his passionate base of supporters, and the rest of the country that has yet to embrace him.
Accordingly, he had to talk tough on issues such as immigration, trade, foreign policy, and the national anthem, to reassure his base that he was the same hard-liner they elected, while also suggesting to other voters that he supports helping “Dreamers,” rebuilding infrastructure, fighting the opioid epidemic and reforming the prison system.
Republicans likely will need voters from both those camps to hold onto the House and Senate.
“If he could give that speech every day for the rest of the year, the midterms wouldn’t be a problem,” said Alex Conant, a former top aide to Republican Senator Marco Rubio.
But Trump’s history suggests he cannot, or will not, do that, said John Geer, an expert in public opinion at Vanderbilt University.
“Given expectations, he did well,” Geer said. “But his tweets get as much coverage as any speech, so he will likely undermine any gains he might have made within 48 hours.”
Trump’s constant tweeting could quickly diminish the significance of his State of the Union speech.
His recent predecessors, including Obama and President George W. Bush, used the bully pulpit much more selectively. Now, Americans hear from the president almost every day and, frequently, throughout the day.
That puts more pressure than ever less on the president's words and more on his actions.
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Alistair Bell)