Policy details and tone will be key in Donald Trump's speech to Congress

Trump greets guests after signing an executive order at the White House, Feb 28, 2017.
Trump greets guests after signing an executive order at the White House, Feb 28, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - After a turbulent start to his presidency, Donald Trump goes before the US Congress on Tuesday (Feb 28) night to give a speech that will be closely watched for details of his plans for the economy and whether he can strike a more conciliatory tone.

World financial markets will be scrutinising the 9pm (9am on Wednesday, Singapore time) address in the House of Representatives for specifics of how the Republican president aims to make good on promises to tackle tax reform, boost infrastructure spending and simplify regulations he says are harming business.

White House officials say the speech will include some gestures toward unifying a country polarised by a bitterly fought election and divided in the early days of his presidency.

An average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics put his approval rating at about 44 per cent, low for a new president.

Trump, whose inauguration speech on Jan 20 painted a dark picture of the United States and referred to "American carnage," told Reuters last week that his address would be a speech of optimism.

In a rare show of self-criticism, Trump told the Fox & Friends television programme in an interview broadcast on Tuesday that "maybe it's my fault" the administration's goals on immigration may not have been communicated effectively.

He was referring to the troubled rollout of his Jan 27 order to temporarily ban people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the country.

Overall, Trump said he had performed well in the Oval Office so far.

"I think I get an A in terms of what I've actually done, but in terms of messaging, I'd give myself a C or a C+."

Invited to say how he would change the messaging, the businessman and former reality TV star said, "Maybe I change it during the speech."

Trump has signed a flurry of executive orders, pulled the United States out of a Pacific trade deal and nominated a conservative judge, Neil Gorsuch, to fill a vacant position on the Supreme Court.

But his first month has been characterised by missteps, internal dramas and acrimonious disputes with the news media, and he has yet to score any legislative accomplishments.

The President's party controls both the House and Senate, giving him a chance to reshape the economy with lawmakers. He faces a host of questions going into his first speech before a joint session of Congress.

DETAILS NEEDED

Specifics of his plan to overhaul former President Barack Obama's signature health-care law have not been released. Republican efforts to find a way to repeal and replace Obamacare have encountered resistance from party conservatives who say draft legislation emerging in the House will not reduce the cost of health care.

Trump has yet to describe how to pay for a sharp increase in planned spending on rebuilding US roads and bridges.

His proposals to cut taxes for millions of people and corporations have not been sketched out. His strategy for renegotiating international trade deals remains unclear. He took delivery on Monday of a Pentagon proposal for fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants and must decide on it in the days ahead.

Trump seeks a big increase in defence spending but that plan includes a demand that non-defence federal agencies cut funds to offset the cost, painful reductions likely to face opposition in Congress. US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he would not back slashing State Department funding as the administration is expected to propose.

Trump's lack of legislative success so far contrasts with most of his recent predecessors, though not all of them.

With the country facing a financial crisis, Obama laid out an economic stimulus plan days after his January 2009 swearing-in and it was approved in mid-February. In early February, Obama signed two other Bills into law: one providing federally funded health care to children and another making it easier for employees to sue employers for wage-based discrimination.

George W. Bush sent a sweeping tax cut proposal to Congress less than three weeks after taking office in January 2001. It was enacted four months later. Bill Clinton fulfilled a central campaign promise in his first weeks in office when he enacted a family-leave Bill on Feb 5, 1993.

Ronald Reagan sent dozens of detailed budget cut plans to Congress less than a month after his 1981 swearing in but George H.W. Bush accomplished little of note in his first 100 days.

DEMOCRATIC DISPLEASURE

Trump's travel ban, which he says was needed for national security reasons, caused wide disruption at airports, sparked protests and was blocked by a federal court. He is expected to sign a replacement order on Wednesday.

Only three weeks into his term, Trump fired his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after disclosures surfaced that Flynn had discussed US sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office and then misled Vice-President Mike Pence about the conversations.

Stocks on major markets dipped along with the US dollar and US Treasury yields on Tuesday as investors waited for clues in Trump's address on how he aims to implement his economic agenda.

"If he gives minimal detail this evening, then perhaps we might get a little bit wind out of the sails on this recent equity move," said Erik Wytenus, global investment specialist at JP Morgan Private Bank.

Tim Albrecht, a Republican strategist in Iowa, said the speech was Trump's best opportunity to date to explain where he wants to take the country. Albrecht doubted there would be much in the way of conciliatory language.

"Despite those at home or in the audience, he's going to put forward what he believes needs to be done just as he did in the two years he ran for president," he said. "As with everything in Trump land, conventional wisdom is thrown out the window."

Democratic lawmakers plan to attend the speech. But at least one, Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, has said he will protest Trump by refusing to applaud or give him a standing ovation, as is a custom at presidential speeches.