WITH NO SIGNS OF A breakthrough to end the government shutdown, President Donald Trump will seek to raise the stakes of the nation’s security Tuesday night by using his first Oval Office address to deliver a direct message to Americans about the imperative to build a southern border wall.
It’s a dramatic, if historically conventional step, and one that could define the remainder of his presidency and shape his chances for re-election in 2020.
Nearly two years into his White House tenure, Trump has yet to deliver on his signature campaign promise to construct a border wall that he once repeatedly declared would be paid for by Mexico.
Now, 18 days into a government shutdown and facing a new recalcitrant Democratic majority in the House, the president looks to be seeking any type of funding from Congress in order to declare at least a partial victory on his coveted promise.
“I appreciate the fact the president is now going over the head of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and taking his message directly to the American people,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said on Fox News. “It’s a humanitarian crisis, as you’ve heard. That’s what President Obama called it in 2014. … It’s also a national security vulnerability.”
But the Democratic opposition, led by an emboldened Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, show no signs of budging on their refusal to allocate even a dime for a wall. The $5 billion requested by Trump appears to be a non-starter; Democrats have even reportedly rejected supporting half of that number.
Democrats see Trump as having to own the political fallout from the shutdown and see no reason to negotiate on what’s become a symbol of the president’s exclusionary vision, no matter if it’s constructed with concrete or steel. They have shown openness to investing in “border security,” an undefined term that both sides have wielded to bolster their cases.
He will follow the address with a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on Thursday, keeping the issue front and center throughout the week.
But while the president’s moves will dominate the media landscape, analysts doubt he can significantly grow support for the wall. Varying polls have shown Americans opposed to it by a 10- to-20-point margin.
“Presidential speeches do not move public opinion in the president’s direction. There is a big political science literature on this,” noted Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University.
A critical outstanding question is whether the president will declare a national emergency to construct his wall, without congressional approval. “I can do it if I want,” he’s said, while also indicating he’d like to give negotiations a shot. What’s unclear is how long he’s willing to negotiate without making substantial headway toward his goal.
As more Americans begin to feel the impacts of a shutdown – from missed paychecks to delayed tax returns or even longer airport security lines – pressure will ratchet up for a resolution, no matter what the president says Tuesday night.
Some conservatives are floating reopening a comprehensive immigration deal that would include a permanent residency for people brought to the country illegally as children, referred to commonly as “Dreamers.” But Pence told NBC that Democratic leaders have indicated they would not continue negotiations until Trump agreed to reopen the government.
[ READ: Here’s How the Government Shutdown Impacts You ]
There’s also a faction of liberals who are planning to boycott the speech altogether, furious that the broadcast networks have allocated time to a speech that they warn will be filled with blatant falsehoods and manufactured fearmongering.
“Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims over 649 days. Immigration is an area where he simply cannot tell the truth,” Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington wrote on Twitter. “He isn’t entitled to prime time coverage to essentially make the case for his campaign pledge.”
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded – and received – time for a rebuttal to be delivered following the president’s remarks.
But they aren’t expected to move from their hard line, setting up a momentous game of chicken in Washington that is now in the midst of its third consecutive week.
Trump’s Oval Office address may mark the final chance for him to speak about the stalemate in a traditional, conventional way.
If it gets panned in the media and he sees no daylight from Democrats, Trump may simply revert to his true comfort zone: volatile unpredictability.