Trump looks to reboot in first address to Congress

[WASHINGTON] Donald Trump delivers his highly-anticipated maiden speech to the US Congress Tuesday seeking to reframe his young presidency, boost low approval ratings and detail an agenda of economic empowerment, health reforms and increased defence spending.

During a turbulent first 40 days in office, Mr Trump has put homeland security front and centre - proposing immigration bans, border walls and a roughly 10 per cent budget boost in national security.

That hawkish message will continue in a primetime address to lawmakers and the nation at 9.00pm (0200 GMT Wednesday).

But aides say the 70-year-old Republican will also focus on a "renewal of the American spirit," as he tries to tilt back toward the bread-and-butter issues that helped him get elected.

"All I can do is speak from the heart and say what I want to do," Mr Trump said in a pre-speech interview with Fox News.

Mr Trump's focus will be "solving real problems for real people," said a senior administration official, previewing an address to be centered on "economic opportunity."

Mr Trump has said he "inherited a mess" from predecessor Barack Obama.

But a galloping stock market and low unemployment rate suggest the president might encounter hostility if he knocks America rather than taking a traditionally more optimistic tone about the nation's future.

The billionaire's tough talk and populist economic message were crucial in his November victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton - helping him sway voters in crucial Rust Belt states Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But his White House honeymoon has been short-lived, with infighting and inexperience dogging the new administration.

Some 44 per cent of Americans think Mr Trump is doing a good job, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average. That is a historic low for modern presidents after a month in office.

Mr Obama's approval rating on the eve of his first speech to a joint session of Congress in February 2009 was 62 per cent.

Mr Trump is likely to use the pomp and tradition-filled occasion - a State of the Union Address in all but name - to reconnect with blue collar voters.

He is expected to tout his willingness to tear up trade deals that he says are bad for American workers.

The CEO-turned-commander-in-chief has already withdrawn the United States from a trans-Pacific trade pact and is threatening to scrap a decades-old deal with Canada and Mexico if substantial changes are not made.

Many will be looking beyond the rhetoric to Mr Trump's plans for rebuilding America's creaking infrastructure and for high-stakes tax and health care reform.

On all three issues, Mr Trump faces a difficult balancing act with fellow Republicans, who control both the Senate and House of Representatives.

To succeed, Mr Trump - the consummate political outsider - may have to embrace Washington deal-making.

"Repealing and replacing Obamacare" has been a Republican rallying cry for years, but there is still no clear plan in place to proceed.

"It's an unbelievably complex subject - nobody knew that health care could be so complicated," Mr Trump said earlier this week.

With so much at stake, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the address was a "once in a generation opportunity" for Mr Trump to work with Congress to move the conservative agenda forward.

Democrats have been severely critical of Mr Trump from the start, although Senator Richard Blumenthal expressed mild optimism that Mr Trump would strike a unifying tone.

"I hope he will resolve to begin anew, try to bring us together, stop the attacks on free press and the independent judiciary, and focus on the complex problems like health care and national defence and education," he told AFP.

Republicans will offer Mr Trump a warm reception but could yet frustrate his goal of swift, far-reaching reforms.

Conservatives are desperate to pull Obamacare out by its roots, but party pragmatists are wary of dismantling a system that has, despite driving up costs for many, helped some 20 million Americans obtain health insurance.

Tensions between the executive branch and the Republican-led Congress are also simmering over Mr Trump's 2018 budget proposal, which will undergo intense negotiations in coming months.

The White House said on Monday Mr Trump wants to hike defence spending by US$54 billion, with offsetting cuts in foreign assistance and other non-military spending.

Mr Trump may struggle to balance that promise with a pledge to keep costly Social Security spending without worsening the country's national debt, which is set to soon top US$20 trillion.

He has speculated that robust economic growth may square the circle - providing a tax receipt windfall.

Like many presidents before him, Mr Trump could be tempted to inflate growth projections to justify otherwise unrealistic spending plans.

"I think the money is going to come from a revved-up economy. I mean, you look at the kind of numbers we are doing, we have probably a GDP of a little more than one per cent," Mr Trump said.

"If I can get that up to three or maybe more, we have a whole different ball game."


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