RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump will deliver his State of the Union address tonight, which almost didn't happen. At one point during the government shutdown, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took her invitation back, saying the speech shouldn't occur until the government was reopened. She did tell the president he could deliver his message in writing. He said no thanks because the State of the Union speech gives the president of the United States a unique platform. This isn't a tweet. This isn't a rally. It is a formal, televised address in front of Congress, a chance to lay out presidential priorities and reach out to all Americans. Will this president do that?
We are joined now by a man who has been involved with some State of the Union speeches in his time, David Frum. He was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and is now a senior editor at The Atlantic. David, thanks for being here.
DAVID FRUM: Good morning.
MARTIN: I'm going to ask a general question, then specific. How do you see the power of the State of the Union address? What can or should these speeches do?
FRUM: What - these speeches are enormously powerful. They - as you said, they're the one time that the president speak directly to the public in prime time. Presidents have been speaking in prime time only since 1965. Before that, TV was not such a factor. It's a televised moment. Congress - not just Congress but the Supreme Court, the whole symbolism of the American government, is all there. And they have to clap (laughter) so the president...
MARTIN: Sort of (laughter).
FRUM: ...Can talk to the country. That's the potential.
MARTIN: So let's talk about the specific moment. How should this president in this moment of divided government use this particular speech?
FRUM: Well, so many of the questions about Donald Trump invite the answer what the president needs to do is build a time machine, go back in time and be a completely different person who came into government in a completely different way. So what this president should do is so different from what this president will do that the should question - you know, we're just spitballing when we ask that question.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what you anticipate him to do. I mean, this is a moment - we've established that there's a lot of gravitas here. There is an ongoing debate, though, happening right now. Lawmakers are in the middle of negotiations over border security to eliminate another potential shutdown. So does he use the speech to actually test float ideas that could be used in negotiations or stay out of the fray?
FRUM: Here's what this president will end up doing, I am quite confident. During the government shutdown, President Trump's numbers dropped with a series of groups that are crucial to his base - non-college white men, evangelicals. I think what he is going to do is come to this address and try to wage a certain amount of culture war in order to bring back his base. President Trump has never aspired to be president of all of the United States. He's aspired to be the president of his base. How often does he talk about his approval ratings among Republicans?
MARTIN: But we - I mean, he says this is going to be about unity. And in a moment of divided government, doesn't he need to reach out?
FRUM: When the president speaks about unity, what he means is victimhood. When President Trump says, why isn't there more unity, what he says is why are you criticizing me? He never sees unity as something that he does for others. Unity is something that others do for him. And that's why he's bringing that poor, unfortunate, little boy who was mocked because of the similarity in the last name between the president's family and his own.
MARTIN: This is a student whose surname is Trump, and he'll be sitting with the first lady to highlight her effort on cyberbullying.
FRUM: You know what would've a nice - a nice thing to do would've been to telephone the family and bring them into the White House for a private tour and give them - if you were concerned with their feelings, you would reach out to them. But the president is bringing that boy because he wants to use that boy as a talisman for himself. It's not about the boy. It's about him. So what the president will do is he's going to talk, I suspect, a lot about abortion as a way of pulling back the parts of the base that drifted away during the government shutdown fight. He will talk about the wall in a way that is not guaranteed to get to yes but actually is guaranteed to get to no. A no on the border wall is better for the president than a yes because it inflames his supporters.
His strategy for 2020 - there is really no way that Donald Trump can get himself re-elected. But what he can do is if he can keep his base - his base plus the weak Republican support, his 45, 48 percent of the country - more or less coalesced together around him and mobilized and angry, then if Democrats split, he's got a path to victory. But he can't do it on his own. And at this point, he has no ability and no interest in - and probably the audience is gone - for him to reach out to the majority of the country and say, I speak to you as the president of all of you. He's never been interested in that job.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the speech as an opportunity for big moments. You were involved in the drafting of the 2002 State of the Union for President Bush in which he used the phrase axis of evil to describe Iran, Iraq, North Korea. It was a big moment. People still talk about it, clearly. Do you think that perhaps the president could use this speech to declare a national emergency to get border wall funding? Is that a good idea to use the speech that way?
FRUM: You'd never want to surprise people overmuch in a State of the Union address because the - when you make these big announcements at the State of the Union, the question is, OK, look around, is there a parade behind you? And so when presidents have done big things - I mean, 1965, when President Johnson laid out what would become the Great Society, it didn't come as, like, a light bulb revelation to Congress. They knew that the president was working on these things, that the legislative majority had been built. This is the moment where the thing you've been testing in the lab and working with Congress you talk to the whole American public about it, to the people don't pay such close attention to politics, but it's ready to go.
Donald Trump's emergency bill is not ready to go. There - it raises all kinds of problems. If he goes ahead with the state of emergency and seizes military funding from other projects, all those other projects have political sponsors. What happens when you take away - there's a 32-million-dollar vehicle rehabilitation project to be built in Kentucky, the state of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. What happens when you cancel that project and take the money for the border wall? How does Mitch McConnell feel? There's work that has to be done. Very obviously, the Trump people have not done that work.
MARTIN: Do polls or - rather, does the State of the Union move polls? Does it actually change anything?
FRUM: It can. When - Bill Clinton showed that it could. Bill Clinton gave a series of States of the Union that were utterly derided by speechwriters. They were big, baggy messes. And they had no theme that he would start with the most popular item and go all the way to the least. But they worked. They worked. And some of George Bush's speeches worked, too.
MARTIN: David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, thank you so much.
FRUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.