In his first State of the Union, U.S. President Donald Trump will stand at the rostrum of the chamber of the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening and address a Congress that cannot fund the nation's business for more than a few weeks, party allies who are distrustful if not disdainful of their leader, rivals who deplore his comportment and his viewpoints, and a nation bewildered over its leaders' inability to get along, go along, or move along.
The contradictions of this American political moment and this unusual President will be on full display as a chief executive known for bombast seeks to speak of warm bipartisanship, and a President fresh from Davos, where his strategic retreat from international engagement was laid bare in a posh retreat, speaks of America's role abroad.
Like every President since Franklin Roosevelt, Mr. Trump will use his personal appearance to set forth his agenda for the coming year, a hoary ritual that his 18th- and 19th-century predecessors did in print rather than in person. James Monroe used the occasion to set forth the Monroe Doctrine (warning Europeans not to interfere in the Americas), FDR seized the nation's attention to speak of the Four Freedoms that became American talismans (freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear), and George W. Bush, employing a phrase written by the Canadian political theorist David Frum, used the occasion to proclaim that the United States was facing an "axis of evil."
Mr. Trump's themes will be far more prosaic: funding the government, continuing the drive toward deregulation, overhauling the immigration system and addressing the status of immigrants who were brought to the United States while young, whose protection from deportation will expire in March if Congress does not act.
In the background will be two issues that almost certainly will be unspoken but inevitably colour Mr. Trump's reception by the lawmakers in the chamber, by the public at home and by observers abroad. The first is the midterm congressional elections – now only nine months away – which have the potential to change the American political calculus and substantially complicate, if not endanger, the second half of the President's term. The other is the profile of Mr. Trump outside of the United States, where, in the wake of his appearance in Davos and his unconventional diplomatic style, America's allies are perplexed and its skeptics are confounded.
All presidents use these occasions to remind listeners of the achievements of the past year, and Mr. Trump's list will surely include the surging stock market, the appointment and confirmation of a strict constructionist conservative Supreme Court associate justice, the undermining of Obamacare and the passage of a tax overhaul that the President will say already has spurred hiring and will assure robust economic growth.
And like all chief executives, he will use his State of the Union address to speak of unfinished business, which in this case still includes efforts to kill Obamacare entirely, to build a wall on the Southern border, to increase vigilance against what he believes are unfair trade practices, and to keep up the pressure on Canadian and Mexican negotiators as he seeks to reshape NAFTA, even as he retains his belief that the trade pact is expendable.
But like so much in American politics, events such as these addresses are as much about showmanship as statesmanship. Presidents enjoying a strong economic tailwind always proclaim – and this is the exact phrase they use – "the state of our Union is strong." Having campaigned in 2016 as the personification of "winning," the President almost certainly will proclaim that the state of the Union is strong, and getting stronger.
That is an expectation embraced by all, friend and foe of the President. But the great unknown remains Mr. Trump's tone and temperament. In Davos he was restrained, almost wistful, though some allies were unsettled by his performance. (He used one phrase that may find itself in Tuesday's address: "The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America.") But on other occasions, he is combative. Almost never is he reflective.
Mr. Trump's SOTU will almost certainly be compared to his Inaugural Address 53 weeks earlier, when he spoke of "American carnage" and hurled insults at the congressional leadership and American Establishment figures who were sitting mere feet from him.
Now he presumably knows the necessity of working with the congressional leaders he often assails, and perhaps understands the necessity of making bipartisan outreaches, especially since a third of the Senate and all 435 seats in the House are being contested at year's end. A Democratic surge that gives the party control of one or both Houses would be catastrophic for the Trump agenda and perhaps for the Trump presidency itself.
The Greek chorus of Washington lawmakers and national political commentators will use Mr. Trump's evening performance as a measure of how much he has calibrated his approach and views to the capital environment that he has now experienced for 12 months. "Smart leaders know that as people get used to them, and as they get used to the people they work with, they can do different things, pull different levers, take different approaches, and change the way they lead," said David Lassman, a professor of organizational management who teaches a course in leadership at Carnegie Mellon University. "Great leaders listen, learn something and change."
When the 18th-century framers of the American Constitution required the president "give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union," they could not have expected the spectacle that will unfold in Washington Tuesday evening: A President embroiled in personal vendettas, at war with bureaucrats of his own government and his administration under investigation in its first year, addressing a joint session of Congress, itself deeply divided by parties that the drafters of that venerable document did not anticipate and, indeed, deplored.
Thus the real message of the State of the Union will be whether Mr. Trump has listened, learned something, and changed.