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How Much Will Trump's Address To Congress Reflect 'Renewal Of American Spirit' Theme?


Let's start the program today looking ahead to President Trump's first address to a joint session of Congress that happens Tuesday. So as a part of our regular feature, Words You'll Hear, we want to take a look at some of the words you'll hear in the speech or that you will hear to describe it.

According to the White House, the theme will be, quote, "the renewal of the American spirit," unquote. For more on how Donald Trump is likely to express that idea, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So in his inaugural address, Donald Trump spoke about American carnage in a speech that really took a lot of people aback for its deeply negative tone on an occasion that usually calls for the opposite. So what do you make of this talk of the American spirit now?

LIASSON: I'm not sure what to make of it. You know, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, said in addition to laying out his vision, Trump will also talk about what he's accomplished already. That I understand because Trump routinely says he's done more than any other president in American history. But Trump's aides told us before the inaugural speech that it was going to be about unity, but it turned out it wasn't at all. It was very dark and dystopian, as you said.

It sounded like the blow torch was being passed to a new generation, as some journalists quipped. So I don't know when they preview a kind of more optimistic Sunday speech if it's going to turn out to be exactly that.

MARTIN: Well, if they are saying or if they're suggesting that the address will be optimistic, does this indicate an acknowledgement that the tone of the inaugural address, perhaps, did not strike the right tone, that perhaps the president needs to strike a more positive or optimistic tone?

LIASSON: There are definitely people who think that he needs to do that. His approval rating is very low, and they believe, especially Republicans in Congress, that if he's going to ask members of Congress to cast tough votes, it's going to be harder and harder if his approval rating continues to be low.

So that's the rationale to be more positive and more inclusive because so far, Trump has mostly spoken to his base - might have succeeded in getting his base to be even more loyal and enthusiastic about him, but there's no doubt he has shrunk his support. He won with 46 percent and now he's hovering anywhere from 38 to 42. And that's historically low, by the way. No president has ever dropped during their first month or gotten this low.

MARTIN: So tell us - remind us if you would about what the purposes of a speech like this - it is tradition.

LIASSON: It is tradition, and traditionally the president comes new - brand new president to give policy direction to Congress, to tell his members of Congress, Republican members what he wants them to do as they try to craft tax reform and health care reform. And the problem is that Republicans have put themselves inside a kind of a Rubik's cube because they have to repeal Obamacare first in order to get the money to pay for those huge tax cuts.

They could make Medicaid less generous to get some money for tax cuts or they could scrap subsidies. The problem is that Donald Trump hasn't provided them with a lot of guidance about what he wants for Obamacare beyond what the White House said this morning which is that the goal is that no one loses coverage. The problem is that Obamacare is getting more popular by the day, and Republicans still haven't figured out if they repeal it what do they want to replace it with.

MARTIN: Well, aside from health care, you've also mentioned the other big priority is tax reform. We've heard House Speaker Paul Ryan and the president have been actually split on their approaches. So where does that sit?

LIASSON: Well, the big split was about something called a border adjustment tax, basically a tax on imports not exports. That's something that House Republicans want. In the past, the president has described the border adjustment tax as being too complicated. But last week for the first time, he said in a Reuters interview it could lead to a lot more jobs in the U.S. And Paul Ryan took that as a quasi-endorsement.

And the reason why this is important for Republicans is the border adjustment tax generates a lot of money. And that could help pay for tax cuts, but it splits the Republican's business coalition because businesses that import goods don't like it at all, like retailers. Businesses that export like it, and the other big question that I'm looking for Donald Trump to answer on Tuesday night is does he just want tax cuts or does he want tax reform? Tax reform is where you lower rates, but you also get rid of a lot of deductions, so rich people, for instance, end up paying pretty much the same even though they're paying a lower rate. And we don't know if Donald Trump is a tax cutter or a tax reformer.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Mara, we have to ask about how we think Democrats are going to respond to this event Tuesday night.

LIASSON: I think they're going to be quiet and sullen, and they're going to be bringing a lot of guests who represent groups they believe the president threatens. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says she's going to bring a dreamer, the mother of a victim of gun violence and someone she says is going to be a symbol of freedom of the press.

There's also going to be a Democratic response to the speech which is interesting. Two people are going to respond - the first former Kentucky governor Steven Beshear. Kentucky is a place where there are a lot of those white working-class voters, a lot of coal miners. And Kentucky has a very popular Obamacare program called Kynect. And the second Democratic response is going to be delivered in Spanish from Astrid Silva who is a dreamer and an immigrant's rights advocate. So you've got that contrast teed up pretty clearly.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.