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Will The Impeachment Trial Change Trump’s State Of The Union Address?

President Trump usually acts like a normal president at the State of the Union. Will impeachment change that?

Trump’s States of the Union speeches have been one of the few places in his presidency that mostly follow the standard presidential script. He delivers a speech prepared by speechwriters, talks about a variety of policy priorities and honors a special guest (a tradition started by Ronald Reagan). In form and function, it’s all been almost normal.1

This year, of course, the context surrounding Trump’s State of the Union speech is anything but normal. The U.S. Senate will likely acquit Trump on two articles of impeachment this week . So the question is: Will Trump stick to the usual script, or will he tackle impeachment head-on?

There are arguments and precedents that point to both scenarios. In the past, presidents facing scandal or impeachment have pushed back by saying those things — Watergate or other scandals, etc. — are just distractions from important policy issues that voters care about. The State of the Union address offers presidents an opportunity to highlight those issues, keeping the focus on his policy agenda. On the other hand, the State of the Union also allows presidents to publicly spin an impeachment or scandal. The framing war between presidents and their political opponents can affect how the public perceives an impeachment, even if that doesn’t seem like how the process should work.

So which tactic has been chosen by presidents who have faced this situation before?

Bill Clinton delivered the 1999 State of the Union Address just a month after the House voted on four articles of impeachment — passing two of them — and a few weeks before the Senate voted to acquit him. Despite some Democrats joining Republicans in calling for the president to postpone the address until after the impeachment process had finished, Clinton proceeded with the speech as scheduled.

His address, on Jan. 19, emphasized a variety of policy priorities, including preserving Social Security and improving public education, and he touted his own administration’s record in domestic and foreign policy. Clinton never mentioned impeachment. He did, however, make several references to national unity. In a discussion of racial inequality, Clinton emphasized the shared fate of a united country:

Whether our ancestors came here on the Mayflower, on slave ships, whether they came to Ellis Island or LAX in Los Angeles, whether they came yesterday or walked this land a thousand years ago, our great challenge for the 21st century is to find a way to be one America. We can meet all the other challenges if we can go forward as one America.

He referred to bipartisan priorities like medical research, education and Middle East peace. These fit in with standard State of the Union items, especially during a period of divided government. But in that political environment, they also functioned as a signal that the country should move on.

Richard Nixon took a different approach in his 1974 State of the Union address. In it, he asked Congress to end the investigations, saying that “one year of Watergate is enough.” (This plea was, of course, unsuccessful, and Nixon resigned about six months later.)

Nixon’s remarks also included a pledge to cooperate with the investigation and a commitment to follow precedent “from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson” to avoid weakening the office of the presidency.

These presidents all took advantage of the platform provided by the address to highlight his role as head of state and national figure. They mentioned shared values, bipartisan priorities and national history.

Trump might try to do the same thing. But while both Watergate and the Clinton impeachment engendered deep partisan divisions, Nixon and Clinton enjoyed some advantages that Trump doesn’t. Unlike Trump, Clinton had high approval ratings during his impeachment. And Nixon held office before the today’s era of polarization and hyper partisanship. In other words, they could lean into the trappings of the presidency and messages of national unity in their addresses in the hopes of expanding their political support — in a way that Trump cannot.

Of course, it’s anyone’s guess what Trump will say. But the State of the Union, along with almost everything else in national politics related to the Trump White House, has become a lot more partisan. As we noted last year, these addresses aren’t especially effective at moving public opinion or passing legislation, and presidents end up speaking to their own parties. (The TV audience is likely to be partisans who are already favorable to the president.) Given that, Trump’s poor (and incredibly steady) approval ratings and contemporary polarization, it’s unlikely the State of the Union speech will change many minds about the Ukraine scandal, impeachment or the Trump presidency more generally.

Still, while partisan attitudes tend to be fairly solidified — with Republicans approving of Trump and disapproving of impeachment — the State of the Union could provide a useful opportunity for the administration to frame impeachment, especially for GOP-leaning voters. Sure, Trump already has sky-high approval ratings among Republicans, but that, to some extent, papers over Trump’s weakness with people who support him. More generally, impeachment has proven surprisingly popular, with a higher percentage of Americans supporting the process than disapproving of it on average since October. FiveThirtyEight’s impeachment poll tracker shows that through January, more Americans approved of impeachment than disapproved.

But a speech addressed to a mostly partisan audience allows him to describe the impeachment as a (failed) attempt to undo the results of the 2016 election (as his defenders in Congress have argued) and to activate a sense of partisan team identity.

In other words, this State of the Union might end up more closely resembling a rally speech, which would be a big break with norms. Such an approach would be substantively different from that of both Nixon and Clinton, both of whom tried to link their speeches to larger national values and priorities. It would also potentially highlight the distance between how partisans on different sides view the impeachment case. But Trump is a highly divisive president in a deeply polarized era. The State of the Union is still a national, ceremonial address – but the president may find political benefit in embracing its partisan potential.

Footnotes

  1. That said, the content has still carried a distinctly Trumpian message. In 2019, the president warned the new Democratic majority in the House to avoid investigations “if there is to be peace and legislation.” In his 2018 address, he suggested that “Americans are dreamers, too,” angering Democrats by employing a term often used for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and using it to justify immigration restrictions.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

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