Trump to tout strong economy in State of the Union address

Andrew Beatty, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 31 2018 06:59 AM

US President Donald Trump delivers remarks before a luncheon for ambassadors to the United Nations Security Council at the White House in Washington, US Monday. Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

WASHINGTON - Embattled US President Donald Trump delivers his biggest speech of the year Tuesday, a State of the Union address designed to sell his economic record to a skeptical and fiercely divided America.

Trump's maiden address to the country -- last year, he delivered a prime-time speech that was technically only to Congress -- presents a once-in-a-year opportunity for the president to unite the nation and mend his sunken approval ratings.

As many as 40 million Americans are expected to tune in when he takes to the floor of the House of Representatives just after 9:00 pm (10 a.m. Manila time). 

"It's a big speech, an important speech," Trump said Monday, teasing his remarks.

Over the years, the event has lost some of its influence, but it can still shape public debate for weeks to come.

In 94 previous addresses, presidents have described the state of the union as "good," "strong," "sound" or in the case of a glum Gerald Ford, "not good."

Expect no such moderation from the 71-year-old real estate mogul and reality TV star.

The state of the union is "incredible," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, outlining a speech that will be long on claims of achievement.

Trump is expected to tout a long bull run on Wall Street and improving growth rates, something the White House is calling a "Trump bump" linked directly to the recent "Trump tax cut."

That narrative suffered a setback when stocks suffered their biggest drop in eight months on Tuesday, amid fears of a bubble. But expect Trump to plow on.

"We worked on it hard, covered a lot of territory," Trump said of the speech, "including our great success with the markets and with the tax cut."

Since Trump came to office a year ago, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up by around 33 percent. The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low.

Trump recently told global leaders of industry in Davos, Switzerland that "America is open for business" again.

During his first year, Trump has often sought credit, but he has appeared less concerned about widening his appeal -- instead defying norms and sticking to a base-first approach.

With legislative elections scheduled for November and the probe into his campaign's ties with Russia intensifying, Tuesday's speech may see something of a change in strategy.

The White House and Trump's allies have been keen to present the address as an attempt to unify.

"This is a president who wants to lead for everybody," said Sanders. "He's not looking to lead for any one person, any one group, but he wants to be the president of the United States."

PLAYING DOWN DIVISIONS 

Trump's approval rating is languishing around 40 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and opposition to his presidency is fierce.

At a donor retreat in California this week, Republican strategists warned that an unpopular president and strong enthusiasm among Democrats could spell doom.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell played down today's level of division. 

"It pales in comparison to what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams said about each other," he told Fox News.

"We haven't had a single instance where a congressman from South Carolina came over and almost beat to death on the Senate floor a senator from Massachusetts," he said -- alluding to an infamous 1856 incident that went down in history as "The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner."

Adding to Republican woes is a steady stream of revelations about the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, which is accused of trying to tilt the 2016 election in Trump's favor. 

The eve of Trump's remarks were dominated by the departure of a key figure in that probe, the deputy head of the FBI Andrew McCabe, who had come under sustained public criticism from the president.

The White House also faced criticism for slow-walking lawmakers' demands for sanctions against Russia.

'AMERICA FIRST' 

Tuesday's speech is also expected to touch on the highly charged issue of migration, where Trump continues to play firmly to his base.

Two couples whose daughters were murdered by MS-13, a Salvadoran gang, are among those the White House invited to attend the address in Washington.

His remarks are being crafted in part by aide Stephen Miller, who is known in Washington as a hardliner on immigration and has been pressing for an uncompromising stance.

"For many, many years, they've been talking immigration, they never got anything done. We're going to get something done, we hope," Trump said.

Trump can also be expected to lift his gaze beyond the United States to what Washington sees as Iran's troublesome activities across the Middle East, as well as North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

And trade is expected to be a strong focus, with Trump repeating claims that the current terms of global business are unfair to the world's largest economy.

"The world has taken advantage of us on trade for many years, and as you probably noticed we're stopping that, and we're stopping it cold," Trump said.