MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And from Don to Ron, let us bring in NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving, a man who has covered many presidents, many State of the Union addresses over the years. Welcome to the studio, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: What are you listening for tonight?
ELVING: These speeches tend to have three parts. There is a report on how the country's doing, and so we can expect to hear good things about strong economic growth, low unemployment and so on. Second, we'll get a agenda of issues for Congress to address. So that's a darker portrait. We're going to hear about abortion and crime and drugs and, most of all, border security and an aggressive appeal for a wall on the southern border.
The third and final element is always a promotional present - a promotional pitch for the president himself, any president. And this of course will be the start of the 2020 campaign for Donald Trump, if you will. And in that, the president will be embracing his own supporters more than he's reaching out to the broader electorate.
KELLY: And what about tone - because the White House says we are also going to hear an appeal for bipartisanship, which presents some challenges coming off the back of the longest shutdown in U.S. government history and with, as we just heard from Don Gonyea, the 2020 campaign already heating up.
ELVING: That's right. But we've heard mixed signals actually from the White House on that score. At first we heard this big emphasis on a unity speech, a big theme for unity tonight. Then the word has been in the last hour or two that the president thought that the speech draft that he got from his staff was too nice to the Democrats. So we shall see when he comes out.
KELLY: We shall see if we are watching him read off a teleprompter or depart in some directions as he is seized by the moment tonight. What about in terms of setting the agenda? And this is a tool for the president to try to shape the agenda that Congress is going to take. How successful are presidents at doing that?
ELVING: It does matter. It can raise awareness a great deal. But it's not as if any of these issues we're going to hear about tonight are a big surprise either for Congress or for the folks watching in Denison or the folks watching anywhere in the country. People know about immigration and infrastructure and drug prices and trouble in Venezuela. And what the president says tonight is not likely to re-scramble any of those debates.
KELLY: Has it ever really helped a president shape a - his agenda going forward into the year?
ELVING: Now and then it has. LBJ used the first television primetime State of the Union address ever in 1965 to advertise his War on Poverty. Ronald Reagan highlighted his moves on budget and fiscal policy as well as burnishing his own image as an inspiring leader. Bill Clinton was good at changing the dynamic, especially after the Republicans took over Congress. He was quite adept at throwing them off balance.
KELLY: What are we expecting to hear from the other side of the aisle? Stacey Abrams, who was the candidate for governor of Georgia this past fall - she narrowly lost a very close but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Georgia governor last year. She has now landed this - what's usually seen as a - somewhat of a poisoned chalice of having to deliver the rebuttal. Where are you expecting to hear?
ELVING: It has been a challenge for the people who have done it over the years, and many of them have suffered in terms of their political trajectory. But Stacey Abrams is expected to be tough on the president, blaming him for the shutdown among other things and highlighting the various investigations that are hovering over the administration this year. She was chosen, you know, to represent this new generation of Democrats we saw voting last November.
But she was also chosen as a person outside the D.C. establishment who might be free to be more confrontational with the president. And she's expected to be just that. As I say, she will blame him for the shutdown tonight, and she'll oppose many of the things that he'll be pushing in his own address.
KELLY: And they have been keeping under wraps exactly where she is going to be speaking from. Do we know yet?
ELVING: That is probably going to be revealed at the moment that she comes out.
ELVING: If we don't...
KELLY: As she comes up on camera, we'll be...
ELVING: Just a little bit...
KELLY: We'll be figuring it out. And last thing - if you had to put a bet on it, will we see any huge news made tonight? There's been speculation about what - will a national emergency be declared?
ELVING: I don't believe that the president would obliterate the rest of his speech by declaring a national emergency. If he does that, that's the only thing that will be reported from his speech, and he would have lost this opportunity to do all the other things we talked about.
KELLY: That's NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: And stay with us and your local NPR member station throughout the evening. I will be here. Our special live coverage of President Trump's State of the Union address begins in just a few minutes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.