WASHINGTON — The annual State of the Union address Tuesday will have the traditional pomp and trappings that symbolize government working together for the good of the people.
It's an event President Donald Trump wasn't going to pass up, preferring to postpone it after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suggested he submit a written message amid their standoff that shut down the government.
Speaking to the nation from the House Chamber before a joint session of Congress, with Supreme Court justices and other dignitaries in the audience, is a tradition Trump "venerates ... seeing it as an opportunity to look presidential and put pressure on Democrats to work with him," White House officials told Politico.
But the setting has contributed to a public misperception that the president wields more power than the Constitution allows, experts and members of Congress agree. They also say that the address accomplishes nothing more than his constitutional duty of recommending to Congress his priorities.
"(The speech) is an important opportunity for the president, but it's not a speech from the throne," said Donna Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has made a study of the State of the Union address and its impact.
Thomas Jefferson made the same reference to a monarchy when he broke from tradition and submitted his report in writing.
So, when the president describes past accomplishments and makes overtures of bipartisan cooperation to address his priorities, the viewing public should temper expectations on what actually will transpire over the next 11 months.
"The speech in and of itself has no functional purpose other than providing an outline of what (the president) would like to do," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is serving his ninth term in Congress.
And Congress most often doesn't immediately take up a president's priorities, according to a study by Hoffman and Alison Howard, of Dominican University of California who with Hoffman authored "Addressing the State of the Union: The Evolution and Impact of the President's Big Speech."
She said their analysis of State of the Union speeches found two out of five legislative requests by the president were either fully or partially successful in the same year as the address.
Today's ceremonial address evolved from a constitutional duty of the president to report to Congress on the state of the union and "recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."
The annual report was intended as a check and balance on the president's power, but throughout the 20th century some presidents have used the event to build public support for their agendas and tilt that power in their favor, Howard said.
After Jefferson decided to mail it in, that became the preferred method of communication until President Woodrow Wilson "stunned official Washington" and delivered his 1913 report in the House chamber to a joint session of Congress, wrote Colleen J. Shogan in an overview of the State of the Union for the Congressional Research Service.
Wilson also "altered presidential rhetoric, using it as an intermediary tool to draw widespread public attention to the policies he supported," Shogan wrote.
Succeeding presidents took advantage of radio and television technologies to take their unfiltered message directly to the public. President Lyndon Johnson was the first to deliver his State of the Union in the evening, Shogan noted.
There were a couple of exceptions — and presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter opted for the written report to Congress in 1973 and 1981, respectively — but overall the speech has evolved into a rhetorical tool for presidents to persuade and appeal to the public and Congress.
All State of the Union addresses have had some events providing a tension to the speech and this year's is no exception:
• The longest government shutdown in history and the looming deadline to address border security to avoid another shutdown.
• The unprecedented request by Pelosi to postpone the speech during the shutdown.
• The Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and House Democrats ramping up efforts to launch their own investigations into the Trump administration.
• GOP leaders in the Senate reasserting their authority in matters of foreign policy in rebuking Trump over military assistance to Saudi Arabia and troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan.
"I am interested in seeing how the president frames events of the last 40 days, if he's willing to give and the framing of what he's going to do," Hoffman said. "I would expect a little less than what we typically see in terms of requests of Congress because this president sometimes has a view that he can go it alone on a lot of things."
But it wouldn't be exceptional if Trump didn't ask much from Congress. Shogan wrote that policy requests typically drop in State of the Union addresses after a mid-term election, as "presidents use a greater portion of their time … highlighting their policy achievements."
Highlighting achievements can be a rhetorical tool to illustrate what could be accomplished by working together, Howard explained. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, another tool past presidents and Trump have employed is acknowledging citizens in the gallery who have benefited from their initiatives or could benefit from future policy priorities.
Politico quoted White House officials saying that in addition to navigating the divisive topic of immigration and border security, the president will call for legislation to rebuild infrastructure and lower drug prices, "two issues on which Pelosi has signaled she is willing to work with Trump."
"The goal of the speech is to be persuasive, to promote a sense of shared identity because you're trying to persuade the Congress to actually do what you're asking them to do," Howard added.
Having the president, the Senate, the House, Supreme Court justices and cabinet members in the same room "definitely highlights the relationship between the president and Congress, which is never static," Howard said.
The ebb and flow of the relationship between the two branches has been on display since the November 2018 midterm elections delivered a Democrat-controlled House. The dynamics of divided government played out in January when a standoff over security on the U.S.-Mexico border shut down the government for 35 days.
Trump agreed to the Democrats' demands to reopen government and settle the border security issue before Feb. 15.
“I really think it’s going to be a speech that is going to cover a lot of territory," Trump told reporters Thursday, "but part of it is going to be unity.”94 comments on this story
But both Howard and Hoffman said the public shouldn't get the impression that a call for unity means Congress gives a president everything, or anything, he asks. They explained the framers of the Constitution didn't intend government to work that way.
"Americans need to understand that reality," Hoffman said. "This view of the presidency that has developed over time has increased expectations, but the tools presidents have to get things done haven't increased. And those tools are contingent upon another branch of government going along."
Contributing: Associated Press