What to Expect From Trump’s Address Tonight

Typically, a president’s first address to a joint session of Congress is made in the midst of their honeymoon phase with voters. Usually, at the height of their popularity the address gives presidents their first (and sometimes best) opportunity to sell their agenda to large audience and an open minded public. In that sense, President Trump’s address to Congress will be far different from anything we’ve seen in recent history.

Trump enters tonight with an average approval rating in the low to mid 40’s (Presidents Obama and Bush 43 entered their first address just north of 60%, President Clinton just over 50%). Partisan divisions have been steadily increasing for most of this century, a trend which was greatly accelerated by the contentious 2016 campaign. President Trump faces a wall of opposition from liberal (and even most moderate) Democrats, but also an uneasy relationship with some GOP factions. Whereas most Presidents have a solid foundation of support from their own party and attempt to draw in independents and moderates on the other side, President Trump’s ability to govern is going to be determined by how well he’s able to hold together his fragile coalition of supporters.

Here are the three groups of Trump supporters you can expect to be targeted in tonight’s address:

1. Trump Republicans / The Die Hards — These are the voters who supported Trump throughout the primary and propelled his campaign. They support most of his agenda. Typically, Presidents don’t need to spend a lot of energy appealing to their hardcore base but Trump has repeatedly defied expectations by refusing to move towards the center. He believes that the energy among his core supporters is what drove turnout in November, and what will ultimately win him re-election. Expect him to highlight his kept promises so far (Executive orders, increased deportations, companies staying in US) and outline a nationalist agenda that he hopes will have broad appeal. This will include building up the military, supporting police and veterans, building the wall, defeating ISIS, and negotiating better trade deals for the US.

2. Trump Independents / Trump Democrats — The smallest group, but the group most vital to his electoral success in the Rust Belt. These are voters that may not approve of Trump’s personality or rhetoric, but support his economic agenda. Trump’s ability to deliver economically to the rust belt will likely determine his re-election chances so expect to hear a lot about his anecdotal success stories so far (Carrier, Ford, etc.) and his plans to bring back manufacturing jobs (better trade deals, import taxes, etc.). This group consists mainly of white working class voters that respond to economically populist messages. They may agree with Trump on other issues like Immigration, but for them it’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs. If it seems like Trump’s economic message is always focused on the Rust Belt, it’s not an accident and the region will be a major target in tonight’s address.

3. The Rank and File (Moderate and Conservative Republicans) — Normally, two separate groups, moderate and conservative Republicans are in the same boat during the Trump administration. They probably supported other candidates during the primary, but couldn’t bear the thought of Hillary winning the Presidency. They’ve put aside their differences with Trump in hope he’ll be able to enact conservative policies. Trump earned some capital from the rank and file by nominating Neil Gorsuch, but there’s two legislative victories that loyal Republicans expect and demand: Repealing and replacing Obamacare, and tax reform. Conservatives are already started to get nervous about the slow pace of repealing Obamacare, they expect Trump to use the bully pulpit tonight to give Congress direction, and get the process back on track. Throughout and campaign, and during his presidency thus far, Trump hasn’t seemed entirely comfortable working with the conservative wing of his party. His natural inclination seems to be to appease conservatives, while promoting populist policies (infrastructure, tariffs, and military spending). This might the group he focuses on the least, but it’s the group he needs the most to govern effectively. Moderates already don’t approve or are running out of patience, and conservatives will start to get ancy if they don’t sense movement on key policy items.

At this point, it would be foolish to expect a “new” Trump with a softer tone and a more unifying message. He believes he’s reached this point by following his instincts, and he’s not likely to abandon them now. We shouldn’t be surprised if he ventures off script, or spends time focusing on inconsequential things, that’s just Trump. What really matters tonight is the policy included within the speech, who it’s directed towards, and how they respond.