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You can think of tonight's State of the Union speech as a civic ritual. An update on the state of the union is required by the Constitution, and almost everybody who's anybody in government will be there. But this is also the president's first major speech as the 2020 election cycle gets under way. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson looks at Trump's position as he gears up for re-election.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Less than two years away from facing the voters again, Donald Trump is stuck. His approval rating, around 40 percent, is steady but not very high. And in several new polls, majorities of voters say they will definitely not vote for him in 2020. Republican strategist Bruce Mehlman says Trump still has a good economy working for him, but he is facing a lot of headwinds.
BRUCE MEHLMAN: He's the first president to never crack 50 in his first two years. The resistance is really energized, and that's part of why you saw the highest midterm turnout since 1914 last November. The economy has been really strong, but it's showing some worrisome signs. Mr. Mueller's report, and or Democratic oversight, will likely make the waters choppier. And voters want change.
LIASSON: Voters want change, and they voted for change in eight of the last 10 federal elections. In 2016, Trump was the change candidate. He made two core promises. One, to be a fighter, to stick to his principles, and when attacked, punch back twice as hard. He's been true to that first promise. But the second one, says political analyst Amy Walter, not so much.
AMY WALTER: The second was, because I'm not a politician, I can get stuff done because I don't follow those silly old rules that those career politicians follow. He's going to be a dealmaker. And not only has that not worked, but he seems to be actively working against making that work.
LIASSON: On top of the stinging rebuke Trump suffered in the midterm elections, there was his bruising losing fight over the government shutdown, triggered by his insistence that Congress fund his border wall. Polls show more voters blame Trump than Democrats for the shutdown for government's failure to perform even its most basic functions. Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who worked on Trump's 2016 campaign, says the president still has the support of his base, but...
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: He needs to raise his job approval. He needs to bring in more people into his voter coalition. I think the Democrats are trying to contain him because if he gets over 50 percent job approval, as President Obama did, as George W. Bush did, he will get re-elected.
LIASSON: Can Trump climb out of the hole he has mostly dug for himself? Yes, says former Bush administration official Lanhee Chen. Chen says Trump still has plenty of time even though he is currently in a tenuous position.
LANHEE CHEN: I don't think it's a tenuous position without any exit. I think he's got some opportunity to bridge the gap, to raise support amongst independents and moderates. And should he keep that base support, I think he would be a formidable candidate going into the 2020 cycle.
LIASSON: Chen thinks the formula for Trump is to keep fighting for the wall but also go beyond it and offer some olive branches to Democrats. Tonight, for instance, Trump will put forward some policies Democrats could support - an infrastructure plan and a way to curb prescription drug prices.
CHEN: That might be a way for him to garner additional support amongst more moderate voters that potentially are disaffected by the way he's treating the immigration debate.
LIASSON: Even though many of the president's advisers are concerned that he starts the 2020 cycle with a lot of self-inflicted wounds, they console themselves with one important fact. A re-election campaign is not only a referendum on the incumbent. Andy Surabian worked in the Trump White House. Now he's a political adviser to Donald Trump Jr.
ANDY SURABIAN: At the end of the day, politics and elections are typically binary choices, and the biggest gift to Trump is for Democrats to nominate what I call a kneeler, someone who supports kneeling for the national anthem.
LIASSON: In other words, someone on the liberal side of the culture wars that President Trump loves to fight. The Democrats' recent missteps over late-term abortion and the left-wing tilt of the current Democratic field is fueling those Republican hopes. But, says Bruce Mehlman...
MEHLMAN: If the Dems are able to nominate a presidential nominee that appeals to the middle of the country, that's going to be very powerful. But if they go hard left, there is a path for Donald Trump to get re-elected.
LIASSON: And that's why the president, a master marketer who believes in the power of repetition to brand himself or his opponents, has been saying this over and over again.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Super-left Democrats, the radical Democrats, what's going on in that party is shocking.
The Democrats had become radicalized.
Democrats, they've become a radicalized - they really have. They have become a radicalized party.
LIASSON: And that was just in the span of one day. The president clearly has 2020 on his mind. He's talking about it, and he's tweeting about it. And tonight, he'll have the biggest audience he'll have all year to not just define the Democrats but to lay out an affirmative case for himself. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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