President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday will offer him the most high-profile platform since the inaugural address to confront issues that have dragged down his approval ratings.
With his average approval rating hovering below 44 percent, Trump has struggled during the first month of his presidency to broaden his appeal beyond the voters who put him in office. A series of controversial executive orders and damaging administration leaks has helped to deny Trump the honeymoon period afforded to other newly-inaugurated presidents, who have enjoyed relatively high poll numbers during the early days of their first terms.
Republican pollsters and strategists say Trump needs to move beyond the generalities that characterize his red-meat rallies and focus on the policy debates that have already consumed Congress when he delivers his high-stakes speech on Tuesday.
“President Trump needs to have some specifics,” said Glen Bolger, a pollster at Public Opinion Strategies. “If this is just a speech about ‘the best’ and ‘the biggest’ and ‘winning,’ that won’t get the job done. It worked for the campaign, but it’s time for some specificity of plans.”
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Trump is expected to review some of the policy changes his administration have notched to date, such as the move to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the effort to negotiate job-creating investment deals with major corporations, White House officials said on Monday evening.
Matthew Towery, a pollster at Opinion Savvy, said Trump should dedicate some of his speech to actions that have polled well so far.
“We’ve found that most of his high-profile Cabinet appointments have been met with overall approval, despite the contentious confirmation process,” Towery said. “Likewise, voters are optimistic about the economy, and tax reform is among the most important issues for a majority of Americans.”
“The Keystone pipeline is also fairly popular,” Towery added. “These are easy, relatively benign issues that will play well with his base and won’t completely alienate the rest of the rest of the room.”
The theme of Trump’s speech — “the renewal of the American spirit,” according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer — suggests the president has prepared an optimistic, forward-looking speech.
And polls show there are still causes for optimism in surveys of Trump’s performance.
For example, Trump continued to earn high marks when it came to “dealing with the economy,” “being firm and decisive in decision-making” and “changing business as usual in Washington” in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last week. But Trump earned the lowest ratings for “having the right temperament.” Only 8 percent of people asked about the president’s temperament gave him the highest grade.
Lee Carter, a pollster at Maslansky and Partners, said Trump should use the opportunity provided by the speech to demonstrate his discipline.
“I would tell him to stick to the script and read from the teleprompter to reassure folks that he can when he needs to,” Carter said.
Trump’s roll-out of an executive order related to immigration from the Middle East — as well as his directives to the Department of Homeland Security calling for stricter enforcement of immigration laws — have sparked fierce opposition from Democrats, who accuse the president of violating American values. Trump’s temporary restrictions on travel from seven Middle Eastern countries have been dubbed a “Muslim ban” designed specifically to keep members of a certain religion from entering the U.S.
Towery suggested immigration policy will be a more delicate area for Trump to approach.
“There are issues that President Trump needs to clarify, or otherwise avoid altogether. For instance, a Fox News poll showed that 54 percent of voters believe that the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is ‘not at all important.’ He should refrain from any mention of it to Congress,” Towery said. “The same should be said of the ‘Muslim ban,’ which has been met with overall disapproval by multiple outlets.”
The same Fox News poll that registered ambivalence about construction of the border wall also found 53 percent of respondents felt Trump’s indefinite ban on Syrian refugees “went too far.”
But the centerpiece of Trump’s speech will likely focus on a topic that has busied House and Senate leaders for weeks: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
“The giant, looming elephant in the room is, of course, the ACA,” Towery said. “Voters are worried that health insurance will be harder to get, and they’re split as to whether the Trump administration’s policies will even benefit their family overall.”
Indeed, Republican lawmakers were besieged during last week’s recess by voters demanding answers in town halls around the country to questions about the future of Obamacare.
Trump will face pressure from Republicans to offer guidance on how the party should proceed on a policy overhaul it has pursued for years.
“He should lay out some of his principles for reforming healthcare — start outlining it,” Bolger said.
Carter suggested Trump use the speech on Tuesday to reach out to Democrats who could help ease the passage of healthcare reform legislation.
“I would tell him to have a call to action. To invite representatives from both sides of the aisle to come together and do what the American people asked for: cut taxes, fix Obamacare, keep them safe,” she said. “I would tell him to ask for a stop to the squabbling and grandstanding. And I would ask him to extend an olive branch by publicly inviting key Dem leaders to his office for a conversation – a brainstorming session of how they can better work together.”
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner