Tonight President Trump walks into foreign territory: Congress. Despite his party being in total control of Washington, his speech tonight in the Capitol will not be a homecoming.
The Manhattan billionaire was slow to collect endorsements from elected officials in his own party during the Republican primary. He had running feuds with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan throughout the election. He antagonized just enough sitting GOP senators like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul to create the potential for a small bloc to humiliate him at an inopportune time.
And the stakes couldn't be higher for a president in his first month in office. Up until today, his presidency has been swallowed by his executive orders, his administration's unsteady attempts at diplomacy, and his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Can Trump reset?
The president is reportedly interested in using the speech to kick off a series of policy proposals that cross normal political lines. He wants an infrastructure-spending project to win over Democrats as well as a big tax reform package that Republicans can support. A list of talking points says that he wants to pitch his new ideas for maternity leave, an issue on which his daughter Ivanka has acted as a surrogate. But will Congress be willing or able to act on any of it?
While Hillary Clinton had a small army of wonks writing policy, Trump did not run on much of a legislative agenda. This relieved Republicans of having to defend Trump's plans in their own campaigns, but it now leaves his party in Congress underinvested in his ideas. And without presidential leadership, Congressional Republicans have struggled to form their own proposals on health care, partly because they are tripping over their own philosophical differences on the issue, and partly because they have gone home to town halls featuring fierce protests of any alteration of the status quo. Republicans are rapidly learning that their own success in 2009 and 2010 is due to the fact that any major legislative change to health care scares people. The GOP's inability to converge on an idea is revealing itself on tax reform, too.
And Trump is unlikely to find any friends on the other side of the aisle. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi indicated in November that the Democrats might be willing to work with Trump on some items of his agenda, like infrastructure. But that feeling is rapidly weakening. The Democratic base was energized by attempts to humiliate and stonewall Trump's Cabinet nominees, and they are in no mood to compromise with a president that they increasingly view as illegitimate. Seeing the direction of polls and the restive mood of the base, Nancy Pelosi has now said that Democrats can't work with Trump on anything.
Trump may be able to whip his own Republican coalition into shape if he can master the bully pulpit of the presidency. Certainly the fear he struck into his rivals in the Republican primary worked in his favor. He has talk radio on his side, along with Fox News and the Drudge Report. But right now he is still struggling to appoint lower level positions in his Cabinet. He has barely even taken possession of the executive branch. And the traditional measures of popularity show that Trump is not to be feared at all. Politicians act on polls and none of the polls right now say to get on the Trump train. His presidency is already stuck, and Trump himself no longer gets the benefit of being the alternative to the fantastically-detested Hillary Clinton.
So Trump's first priority tonight must be to repair his approval ratings with the public and rally popular support to items on his agenda. And to do that, he has to look beyond his base. His audience in Congress, for instance, is unlikely to appreciate the ad-libbing, stream-of-consciousness style that works for Trump at rallies.
One side effect of Congress kicking so much of its responsibility to the executive branch is that Congress has trouble functioning at all if the president is unpopular. If Trump wants anything to happen for his agenda, he has to capture a popular mandate. Considering that he is a popular vote loser, that the press loathes him, and that a significant sliver of the population thinks he is a fascist in all but name, that's not an easy task.