As US President Donald Trump prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, RTÉ's Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan takes a look ahead.

The state we're in

Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution states that the President "… shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient".

That is the basis of the State of the Union address. The constitution does not outline when or how often the address should be delivered and it has evolved over time. 

It used to just be a written report but in modern times it has taken the form of a speech before a joint session of Congress, traditionally delivered in late January or early February.

Newly elected presidents usually address Congress following their inauguration, but such speeches are not officially considered State of the Union addresses. So while Donald Trump did appear before Congress last year, his speech on Tuesday night will technically be his first State of the Union.

And that is another interesting evolution of the State of the Union, the fact that it is held at night. It used to be delivered during the day, but since the arrival of television, the speech has been moved to 9pm Eastern Standard Time for maximum TV audiences. 

Donald Trump made his name as a primetime TV star and he will need to put in a strong performance on Tuesday night. There is a lot riding on this speech.

Donald Trump was a primetime TV star in The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice

His approval ratings are at a record low for a first year president, so a chance to talk about the successes and achievements of the last twelve months is a golden opportunity for the president to try to boost his popularity.

His recent speech before the World Economic Forum was a good dress rehearsal for the State of the Union.  Donald Trump used his address in Davos to highlight the positives of the last year and to tell the world that America is open for business.

Tax cuts

In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, we can probably expect lots of references to the Republican’s tax reform bill which was passed by Congress at the end of last year.

This was, by far, Donald Trump’s biggest legislative victory. 

The president described it as the most massive tax cut ever and a Christmas present for the American people.

The Democrats, who opposed the measures, said the tax cuts would mainly benefit big companies and the wealthy.

Two months on from the passage of the bill, pollsters have started asking people about what they think of the tax cuts. A recent poll by CBS News showed that 42% of people believe the tax cut bill will not make much of a difference to them and only 27% think their taxes will be lowered.

This is worrying for the president and for the Republican Party.

There are mid-term elections in November and Republicans need to sell the message that the tax cuts are benefiting their voters. Those efforts are already under way and will no doubt continue during next week’s State of the Union address.

The economy

The US stock market is booming and unemployment is falling.

Mr Trump repeatedly talks about the strength of the US economy so we can probably expect plenty of references to this during his speech on Tuesday night.

It is a statement of fact, the US economy is doing well but does Donald Trump deserve the credit?

Democrats would of course point to the fact that the economic growth started during Barack Obama’s tenure and what America is experiencing now is simply a continuation of this trend. 

But who do the American people think should get the credit? I look again to that recent poll by CBS News.

On this one, Donald Trump does a little better.

A majority of voters believe the economy is doing well and most think the president deserves at least some of the credit. Only 27% of those polled believe he has nothing to do with the current economic growth.

But this poses an interesting question; if a majority of voters believe Donald Trump is at least partly responsible for the strong economy why is not he more popular? According to the CBS News poll his approval rating is just 37%.

That is the lowest score ever for a first year president since modern polling began.

I recently put this point to Kayleigh McEnany, the National Spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. I asked her if the party was worried about the president’s unpopularity with mid-term elections approaching in November. 

"I’m not worried at all," she said. "If we were to trust polling, then Hillary Clinton would be president but instead Donald Trump is because there were hidden Trump voters across the nation who showed up on election day. 

"Likewise, there are hidden Trump supporters who don’t show up in approval ratings because they don’t like talking to pollsters and institutions." 

She may have a point, the pollsters failed to predict Donald Trump’s election so perhaps they are wrong now when it comes to his approval ratings.

Ms McEnany went on to say that "money doesn’t lie". She claimed that the Republican National Committee is raising a lot more money that the Democratic National Committee and much of it is coming from small donors giving amounts of less than $250. 

"Men and women across this country are opening up their wallets and donating to the Republicans," she concluded. 

Donations could increase further if Donald Trump manages to sell his achievements during his State of the Union address but the speech is not just about looking back on the previous year, it is also about outlining plans for the year ahead.


If the US president’s speeches in 2017 were dominated by tax cuts, Obamacare and immigration, we can expect infrastructure to be the ‘buzz-word’ of 2018.

During his election campaign he promised to fix America’s crumbling roads, bridges and transport systems. The promises were largely put on hold last year however because of the focus on the aforementioned tax cuts and healthcare reform. 

A few days ago, Mr Trump met with mayors from across the US at the White House and said that he is planning a $1.7 trillion infrastructure package, adding that details would be announced at the upcoming State of the Union address.

Politicians on both sides of the political divide support the idea of a big investment in infrastructure, but it will be expensive and how to pay for it is likely to be where Republicans and Democrats will disagree.

Donald Trump has proposed using some private funding to help cover the cost. It is a concept we in Ireland are familiar with, the idea of using Public Private Partnerships to build roads, schools and other pieces of vital infrastructure. 

Mr Trump also wants to see individual states pick up much of the tab in order to reduce the amount of federal funding coming from central government in Washington. 

Democrats want to see a larger portion of the money coming from the federal government but paying for that could mean spending cuts elsewhere.

Mr Trump is unlikely to raise taxes to cover the cost of his infrastructure bill having just spent the last two months highlighting the ‘massive’ tax cuts he has secured.

So while everyone agrees that America needs investment in its waterworks, highways and railroads, paying for it looks set to be one of the big political rows of 2018. 

Some of the big rows of 2017 are also likely to feature at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.


Many Democratic lawmakers attending this year’s State of the Union will be making political statements by bringing a variety of guests.

Some have invited people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children.

It comes at a time when Republicans and Democrats are trying to agree a deal to protect these so-called ‘dreamers’.

Other guests will include people associated with the ‘Me Too’ movement, highlighting sexual misconduct and many Democrats will be wearing black to show their support for the movement like actresses did at the Golden Globes earlier this month.

A number of Democrats have said they will not be attending at all and will boycott the State of the Union to show their opposition to the president.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal from Washington said she would not be there because it was "absolutely unacceptable to see the racism and hatred coming out of the White House."

Rep. Frederica Wilson from Florida is boycotting the State of the Union because she said "President Trump’s address will be full of innuendo, empty promises, and lies."

In this era of on box sets, on-demand TV and internet streaming, the State of the Union is not the primetime television event it once was.

But with boycotts, protests and Donald Trump behind the microphone, this address could be the best show in town.