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Trump Expected To Strike An Optimistic Tone In State Of The Union Speech


Kelsey Snell, as a reporter who covers Congress, do you get all excited when you have a State of the Union speech coming?

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Well, I would say it is an interesting display of...

INSKEEP: Interesting...


INSKEEP: That's an interesting choice of words. All right.

SNELL: ...Of the way that Congress and the president interact, because honestly, we don't get to see this kind of in-person interaction very often. It's when you see an inauguration or addresses like these.

INSKEEP: They will virtually all be in the same room. They'll shake hands and so forth - pats on the back in the way in, the way out. Kelsey Snell, by the way, is NPR's congressional reporter, and she's here on the morning of the State of the Union speech. Is Congress - the people in the - that room - are they ready to work with this president?

SNELL: Well, they are looking for guidance from this president. The State of the Union is typically a governing document, an opportunity for a president to set an agenda for the year going forward. And Congress right now doesn't have much of a map for the year going forward. They need to get some basic governing, like passing spending bills, done, and they need to do immigration. But after that, there's not a lot on their agenda that they are really planning for, and this speech could help.

INSKEEP: Oh, because Republicans tried to repeal Obamacare - didn't work out. They've passed a big tax bill. Not a lot of other big ideas that seem passable are out there.

SNELL: Right. There is some conversation about doing an infrastructure bill, but we don't know exactly what that would involve. And that's a difficult and expensive thing to try to do in an election year.

INSKEEP: We're talking here about substance, but what about style? How much does that matter with a televised speech like this?

SNELL: It says a lot to the people watching it, and it says a lot to the people in the room about the way the president views the year going forward and the year he's just had. And it conveys exactly how the president plans to campaign. This - again, it's an election year, and he's going to be working with many of - particularly, the Republicans in this room to try to keep Republican control of Congress. And the tone does a lot for that.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mention Republican control of Congress. Of course, Democrats'll be on one side of the room, Republicans on the other side. How many of those Republicans are going to be in that room, worried about their jobs?

SNELL: Well, a good number of them. We've already seen a huge number of retirements, particularly among House Republicans. And we are going to watch them see whether or not this is a president they want to run with or run against. Now, that's an ongoing conversation they are having with themselves and within their districts. But a big speech like this where the president is speaking directly to the American people can help establish what his relationship is like with those voters in those districts and in those states.

INSKEEP: Of course, it is the president's speech, but Democrats get a chance to respond. How will they respond?

SNELL: This year, there are five that I count right now - responses.

INSKEEP: Five responses.

SNELL: Yes. So you have your...

INSKEEP: So it's like microblogging for each individual audience - microtargeting, yeah.

SNELL: Well, yeah, there is - that is a lot of what's going on here, and it says a lot about how Democrats view their chances to rebut this president and to speak to this president throughout a campaign year. Got the two more traditional responses - one is from a House member, Joe Kennedy, and the other is from a Virginia delegate, Elizabeth Guzman, who won as big 17 - 2017 sweep. She'll be doing the response in Spanish.

INSKEEP: Oh, the Virginia Democrats won a lot of elections, so...

SNELL: They did. The rest of those speeches, though, are really getting to the left of the center of the party. We're going to see Senator Bernie Sanders doing an address for the progressives, Maxine Waters, who kind of became internet famous in her - a back-and-forth with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin when she was reclaiming her time. She's going to be on BET. And former Congresswoman Donna Edwards will do one for the progressive Working Families.

INSKEEP: Kelsey Snell, always a pleasure when you come by. Thanks very much.

SNELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.