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Democrats Prepare To Counter Trump's Address To Congress

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tonight could be one of those telling moments early on in a presidency. President Donald Trump will be addressing a joint session of Congress. There will be the substance of the speech, of course, and also worth watching is always how lawmakers from both parties respond. We're hearing a variety of voices on the program this morning, Republicans and Democrats. And let's turn now to Mo Elleithee. He's executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and a veteran Democratic campaign adviser who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Good morning, Mo.

MO ELLEITHEE: Morning.

GREENE: And we should say you're joining us on Skype this morning. I want to play a little bit of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. And this is how she summed up the president's first five weeks in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

NANCY PELOSI: He has nothing to show for it but fear in every way to people who are sick, fear to people who are immigrants, fear to people concerned about the greed on Wall Street taking us back to where we were.

GREENE: Mo, do you agree with that? Is Pelosi right that fear is what's being sold tonight?

ELLEITHEE: Well, I think tonight's going to be interesting. The president hasn't really done a whole lot to sell an agenda. You know, even going back to his inaugural address, which was sort of this really dark vision of how he sees America, he hasn't really done a whole lot to turn the corner. So tonight's his shot. Tonight's his first real chance to do that in front of what may be the biggest audience he will have other than his inaugural address. He hasn't shown us a lot of effort to turn that corner. What I think a lot of Republicans are hoping for tonight is that he's going to come in and want to talk about taxes, want to talk about repealing Obamacare.

And I suspect we will hear some of that. But this president can't control himself sometimes. And whether or not he's going to be able to avoid taking the cheap shot or bragging about his Electoral College victory or any of the other kind of nonsense we've heard, you know, that's the big question that we're all waiting to see.

GREENE: Well, I mean, you call it nonsense. I mean, Nancy Pelosi talks about fear. But many have said that Donald Trump has simply been carrying out his campaign promises - I mean, on immigration, the wall, Supreme Court nominee. Has anything really surprised you so far?

ELLEITHEE: No, nothing has surprised me so far. This is exactly what he said he was going to do during the campaign. But remember this, he entered office with the lowest approval ratings of any president in the history of polling. He's got a solid base of support. That's not going anywhere - anywhere from 38 to 41 percent. But there's about 5 to 8 percent of the vote that he got in the election that isn't necessarily with him all the time, people that the jury is still out for. He's not doing anything to solidify that and he's not doing anything to grow his support.

GREENE: I suppose tonight is the kind of opportunity to grow that kind of support and reach those people.

ELLEITHEE: It's the best possible opportunity to do that. He's never going to have a bigger audience than his first joint address to Congress. If you look historically, it's been the highest rated speech for just about every president. This is his rare second chance to make a first impression. This is his real opportunity to begin to say to people, I've got your back, which was his campaign message, essentially. But that hasn't borne out. And so this is it.

GREENE: A lot of Americans, Mo, did not feel like Democrats had their back, especially some of the...

ELLEITHEE: Yeah.

GREENE: ...You know, the working Americans who voted for Donald Trump. So what should Democrats be doing right now? Should their tone be oppositional? Should they continue to just stand up against Donald Trump? Should they start looking at ways to connect with those voters who brought him to office?

ELLEITHEE: It's not an either-or, David. They've got to do both. Yes, it is totally fine to lead a resistance against Donald Trump. It is totally fine to stand up against everything that he stands for and to be incredibly firm in that opposition. That doesn't mean you don't find the occasional thing where you agree on. But it is OK to do that. But at the same time, Democrats need to avoid the temptation to make their entire next two years all about that. There's some in the party who feel like they just need to follow the Tea Party playbook and just offer nothing but resistance.

I don't think that's going to get them there. I think Democrats need - to borrow a favorite Republican phrase, they need to repeal and replace. They need to not only show why they oppose the president and fight him but they need to, at the same time, offer an alternative, they need to find a way to connect with people, they need to make an affirmative case for the party. And that's going to be - that has been a challenge so far.

GREENE: OK, Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service joining us on Skype. Thanks as always, Mo.

ELLEITHEE: Thanks, Dave. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.