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Will President Trump use his address to Congress as a reset?

February 28, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead tonight is the platform being given the new president by the new Republican majority Congress, to talk to them and the American people about what his plans are.

We look ahead now with four who also joined us for last month’s inauguration, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser to during the 2016 elections. And Matt Schlapp, he’s chair of the American Conservative Union.

And it’s good to have you all back together again now that a little bit of time has passed.

Matt, I’m going the start with you. You have been talking to the folks in the White House. What do they think that the president needs to do tonight?

MATT SCHLAPP, Former White House Director of Political Affairs: I think they think it’s going to be a huge television audience.

And this is a president who understands TV and TV moments. And I actually think they understand that he has got perhaps some of his best opportunities to talk to his biggest audience about what he sees for the vision of the country. I actually think he’s going to step back and show people his vision of where he wants to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karine Jean-Pierre, what are you looking for from the president tonight?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, Democratic Strategist: Well, I’m hoping that he reaches out to the people who actually didn’t vote for him and finally brings some unity.

He had an opportunity to do that the last time we were all together on Inauguration Day, and he didn’t. He totally went the opposite way. And so, if that could happen, I think that will be a step forward. But, so far, he has not appealed to that, to the majority of the folks who didn’t vote for him or didn’t vote for him at all, which is a good 70 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, does that sound like something that would make sense for him to do tonight?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Yes, to show maybe that magnanimous side that we have yet to see.

There are some indications that that may happen tonight. Whether it’s as overt as maybe some folks would like to see, I don’t know. But, normally, what you think of as — when you think about a State of the Union address is, it’s like a Pinterest board, right, for the president.

He puts on all his hopes and he puts them out there, and you don’t get everything you want when you put it on a Pinterest board, but at least you’re giving folks an idea of your big overall vision.

But there’s something else that he needs to do tonight, too, which most presidents, even this early on, don’t have to, which is to give the members of his own party some real structure.

And it was interesting today. In The New York Times, Tom Cole, Republican member of Congress from Oklahoma, longtime member, he said today the president must become an active participant in the legislative process. He’s saying, we members on the Republican side, we’re with you, but you need to show not just where you want the country to go, but you need to show us where we need to go. It’s not enough for the speaker and the majority leader to give us marching orders. That leadership comes from you. And we want to hear that tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Michael Beschloss, compared to where other presidents have been at this stage early in their presidency, are we hearing from this president, compared to others, enough about what he wants to do and how he’s going to get us there?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, he hasn’t had an opportunity like this before, because what a State of the Union is, is this odd contraption that no other country has, because our presidents are chiefs of state and they’re also prime ministers. And those two roles are oftentimes very contradictory.

So the State of the Union since Theodore Roosevelt has offered the president the chance to say, these are things I want out of Congress, here is my laundry list.

But, at the same time, it gives a new president an opportunity to be seen as a president of the United States in Congress. He gets very few opportunities like this. As Matt Schlapp said, he’s going to have an enormous audience tonight. If he uses this opportunity not only to say, this is what I want legislatively, but also those of you who are skeptics about me, even in my own party, those of you who voted against me, I can function as a president of all the people.

This is one setting in which he has that opportunity. We will see If he takes it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Matt Schlapp, is there a sense that the president himself feels that he should be reaching beyond the base? We know the people who voted for him, the polls are showing they like what he’s doing so far. He’s having difficulty, though, with others.

MATT SCHLAPP: I think it’s important to go back and think about the fact that Donald Trump is a very different kind of Republican.

He already starts off this presidency having gotten the support of a lot of working-class voters who don’t always vote Republican, but he doesn’t always like to critique, well, you got to reach beyond. He’s already said, hey, I have already reached. We have got a brand-new coalition building here.

But I do think it’s a fair point that he ought to reach out to all Americans. He’s everyone’s president. We’re going to have a national security emergency before too long. It’s inevitable. And that’s when we look to our president as commander in chief to have that moment.

And these moments are special, too, because, with a big audience, he has a chance to tell people, here is why I have been elected and here’s what I’m going to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are people — Karine Jean-Pierre, you were saying people look for him to reach beyond.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Are they willing to give him a second look?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: I’m not sure, because every policy that he’s put forward, executive orders that we have seen in the past month, has been very divisive and dark.

It hasn’t shown that people can trust what the president is going to be doing, just looking at the traveling ban, which is a religious test, which has really destroyed many people’s lives. I mean, you go from the gag order, which is one of the first things that he did, which really attacked women’s health issues on a federal international level as well.

So, there are a lot of things that we have seen that is troubling. So, I’m not sure if he’s going to get there. There’s always this conversation about, is Donald Trump going to be able to press that reset button?

If I got a dime for every time somebody said that to me, I would be a billionaire and probably be part of the Cabinet. And it’s just — we have not done that. So, I think there’s lack of — distrust, and we’re just not sure if that’s going to happen.

And nobody really actually thinks it’s going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Amy, I thought — I was struck today with the lunch with the president that he did bring up on his own immigration bill, the time is right, maybe both sides are ready to compromise.

It was a very different message from what we heard when he was talking about the travel ban.

AMY WALTER: Well, this is what’s going to be fascinating, because your question was a really important one: Are people ready to listen to it?

And what we’re seeing right now, we know we have a very polarized country. This election highlighted it, and it continues to reign today. But when you ask Democrats, this was the most recent Pew poll, what do you want your Democratic leaders to do in Congress, and 75 percent of Democrats said, fight everything that Donald Trump does.

They want Democrats to put up a fight. And so, even if the president reaches out, and even if there are members on the Democratic side that say, yes, maybe I could work with you on this, they’re going to get pushback from their base.

We talked a lot about the Republican base, how committed they are to the president, but the Democratic base is very committed to digging in against this president as well. That is the challenge for Donald Trump now going forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, talk about that a little bit, because some presidents have used opposition to their benefit. Others presidents have been overwhelmed by opposition.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, absolutely.

Franklin Roosevelt, you know, the patron saint of Democrats, in the late 1930s said, my opponents are unanimously — unanimous in their hatred for me, and I welcome their hatred.

He used them as a foil. You might see Donald Trump doing that. But Donald Trump ain’t no FDR, and he wasn’t elected by a landslide. And this is a much more dicey proposition than had he been elected, let’s say, with upward of 400 electoral votes and been able to go into individual congressional districts and saying, I’m a landslide president.

This is someone who wasn’t elected with a popular vote majority, a pretty puny electoral vote majority. So it’s a little bit hard to see him taking the strategy that might have been more appropriate had this been an election decided much more resoundingly.


MATT SCHLAPP: The only thing I would say to that is, is I think the number that matters — you’re right about the popular vote and the electoral vote, but this wrong-track number has been very steep, very negative for a very long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The country being on the wrong track.


There is something where Americans are questioning what America means and where America is going, and does it play a leadership role, both from a national security standpoint and from an economic standpoint.

The only thing I would say, I couldn’t compare to the Depression at all, but there is something there that is affecting our politics very deeply. And when Donald Trump looks very serious and very — and is on offense on trying the tackle the basic economic questions in the economy, I think it’s hard for Democrats, because they’re used to occupying that lane.

And he’s knocked them out of that lane. And they’re trying to figure out how to get it back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karine, Matt has a point, doesn’t he?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: Yes, but reading from a teleprompter for 45 minutes doesn’t make you the president that we all want you to be.

It’s basically he has to do actions. Right? It’s not just words. It’s actions. And his actions haven’t matched up.

MATT SCHLAPP: Have you not seen all these actions?


MATT SCHLAPP: I have seen a lot of these actions.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: But they have been very divisive and dark actions. Right?

And there’s a reason why millions of people, a majority of people are in the streets. Right? And we really — he really has to listen to us, because it’s a problem. You can’t continue being divisive. And he is, like you said, a president for all.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, can he do what Karine is saying and Matt is saying he’s already — he is…

MATT SCHLAPP: There’s a lot of actions going on.


AMY WALTER: Look, at this point in 2009, about 75 percent of Americans said, I think that President Obama will deliver change. More people right now believe that about President Trump, 77 percent now saying, I think that Donald Trump can deliver change.

And by — it’s a plurality, not a majority, think that he’s going to deliver positive change. Now, Democrats don’t believe he’s going to deliver positive change, but a plurality of independents do and, of course, a big majority of Republicans do.

So on this idea that Matt is talking about, this — about changing the wrong track to right track, there are more people than not that believe that, even though they may dislike him personally, he’s going the change things in the right direction or bring the right kind of change.

That’s where he’s going to have to perform. Independents are a little more willing to give him the chance. If he doesn’t deliver, well, we will see what they do. Democrats not as willing, and Republicans are all bought in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael, it feels like we’re coming back to that point about how divided the country is and just how differently people feel about this one man.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that’s right.

And it could have been different, frankly. His inauguration, he chose the path of playing to his base, giving this very dark speech about what a mess — that’s not the term he used that day — he used it later on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, tonight, they’re saying he’s going to be uplifting.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: So, maybe that will change. And maybe this will be a different moment in this presidency.

It was fascinating what he said to FOX News about giving himself about a C on messaging. That would suggest that maybe we will see a speech tonight that is different from what we heard at the time of the inauguration and during this first month. It would be absolutely scintillating if that happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s something that everybody is paying attention to tonight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That’s for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As Matt said, the White House is expecting a big audience.

We thank all of you for being here to look ahead.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, Karine Jean-Pierre, Matt Schlapp, Amy Walter, thank you all.

MATT SCHLAPP: Thank you.

AMY WALTER: You’re welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can stay with us this evening by following Twitter and right back here at 9:00 p.m. Eastern for our special live coverage of the president’s address.