After having his State of the Union address canceled during the government shutdown last month by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Donald Trump Tuesday night will finally take the greatest stage in politics to make his case for a wall on the Mexican border.
“It's one of the few times, like the Super Bowl, where you have all the American people watching, and if you handle it in the right way, you can move the voters,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who attended more than 30 State of the Union addresses during his time in the Senate and the House.
“The danger will be if he gets off script, or if the Congress acts like a bunch of imbeciles, which we quite often do,” Lott said.
White House officials teasing the speech have emphasized a bipartisan message while also saying Trump will push his signature 2016 campaign promise of a wall.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders indicated the president would highlight what he sees as achievements and downplay discord.
"You're going to continue see the president push for policies that help continue the economic boom," Sanders said Monday night while appearing on "Hannity" on Fox News. "You're also going to see the president call on Congress and say, 'Look, we can either work together and get great things done or we can fight each other and get nothing done.' And frankly, the American people deserve better than that."
In a letter Monday night to House Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote that she hopes "we will hear a commitment from the President on issues that have bipartisan support in the Congress and the Country, such as lowering the price of prescription drugs and rebuilding America's infrastructure."
In the audience will be several Democrats running to challenge Trump in 2020, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party's response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become Georgia's first black governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer previewed Democrats' message for countering Trump, declaring Monday, "The number one reason the state of the union has such woes is the president."
Trump will either try to galvanize public support for pressuring Democrats to agree to fund a wall, or for an emergency declaration he might make to build it unilaterally.
During the partial government shutdown, House and Senate Democratic leaders refused to fund either a wall or steel-slat barrier.
Pollster John Zogby said Trump faces a difficult task.
“He really comes into this State of the Union with his back to the wall,” Zogby said. “The wall is inextricably linked to the shutdown. And the shutdown did considerable damage to himself and to the GOP. They got the bulk of the blame and his numbers went down.”
Public support for the wall crossed 40 percent during the shutdown, but never neared a majority, Zogby said, though he found that emphasizing the underlying border security justification seemed to improve public opinion.
But Zogby added: "I think Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are flexing their muscles right now. What they saw was when push came to shove with the shutdown, they came out winners, or at least not the big losers.”
The federal government careened into a 35-day government shutdown before Christmas when Trump responded to a brewing rebellion among his base by declaring he would only sign a large spending bill with wall funds.
As the shutdown progressed, Trump floated declaring a national emergency to build the wall if Democrats did not support it.
A senior administration official briefing reporters on Friday would not say if Trump will announce an emergency declaration during the speech. Trump suggested to reporters last week that he might.
“Obviously this is as much a pitch to the American public as it is to congressional Democrats,” said Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce immigration.
“There are Democrats who support this and are willing to consider border wall funding,” Mehlman said, indicating he's still hopeful that ongoing bipartisan negotiations for funding a wall — which could obviate the need for an emergency declaration — will lead to a breakthrough.
“The polls have indicated Americans understand the need for real border security," he said.
But potential olive branches risk alienating Trump's base. Mehlman opposes an offer to expand protection for young illegal immigrants as part of a deal, though Lott endorses the idea, saying Trump should show flexibility.
Lott added, "I've never been a big fan of the wall. In my farm in Mississippi we have goats and we just about can't fence them in, or fence them out. I think people are just as smart as goats.”
At the same time, Lott said he believes a wall in some parts of the border would make sense, combined with other border security technologies.
But if Trump uses the speech to try to convince Democrats to support wall funding and it doesn't move Democratic votes, Lott said, "I would declare a national emergency. I would move the Seabees and the Corps down there and build an obstruction that a Mack truck couldn't get through."
While White House officials cautioned that Trump's remarks were still being finalized, the president was expected to use some of his televised address to showcase a growing economy. Despite the shutdown, the U.S. economy added a robust 304,000 jobs in January, marking 100 straight months of job growth. That's the longest such period on record.
Trump and his top aides have also hinted that he is likely to use the address to announce a major milestone in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. Despite the objections of some advisers, Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing U.S. forces in Syria.
In a weekend interview with CBS, Trump said efforts to defeat the IS group were "at 99 percent right now. We'll be at 100."
However, a Defense Department inspector general report released Monday said the Islamic State group "remains a potent force of battle-hardened and well-disciplined fighters that could likely resurge in Syria" absent continued counterterrorism pressure. According to the Pentagon, the group is still able to coordinate offensives and counteroffensives.
Administration officials say the White House has also been weighing several "moonshot" goals. An announcement is expected on a new initiative aimed at ending transmissions of HIV by 2030. "He will be asking for bipartisan support to make that happen," said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Trump's guests for the speech include Anna Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who was allegedly bullied because of his last name. They will sit with first lady Melania Trump during the address.