Live at 9 p.m. ET: Trump's first (sort of) State of the Union

Yes, I know, it’s not technically a State of the Union but that’s the role this speech fills after a new president is sworn in, so let’s not be sticklers. Besides, seeing him there at the podium in the House chamber with Mike Pence over one shoulder and Paul Ryan over the other in full SOTU trappings will be the first moment since the inauguration, I think, that America fully appreciates that he’s the president of the United States now. Expect extra drama from the left’s reaction to the speech afterward if for no other reason than that.

White House aides have been whispering to the media this week that tonight’s speech will be more of a “big picture” of Trump’s vision than the usual dreary SOTU shopping list of policy proposals, but I’m not sure that’s true. According to Sean Spicer, the speech is expected to run 65 minutes on the short end and conceivably up to 80 minutes(!!). Reports were flying on Twitter all afternoon about topics he’s thinking of addressing — an immigration bill, the Yemen raid, the vandalism to Jewish cemeteries, whether it’s “radical Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islamist terrorism,” and on and on. With an 80-minute timetable, he has rhetorical room to spare. There’s also the chance that he’ll go off-script and start rambling about his margin of victory in the election, “fake news,” Ivanka’s clothing line, and lord knows what else. I think he’ll stick to the prompter, as he showed during the campaign when he gave several high-profile policy speeches that he can be disciplined at the mic when needed. But you never know. That’s what make Trump speeches compelling: At any moment he might ditch the classical guitar piece his aides wrote for him and start playing “Smoke on the Water.” (A Bannon/Miller speech is already pretty “Smoke on the Water,” actually. Trump going off-prompter would be more like “In a Gadda Da Vida.”) Said one senior advisor to Politico, “It could be ad-libs. Welcome to my world.”

There’s one topic of special importance tonight, to which congressional Republicans will be paying close attention.

A month ago at a GOP retreat in Philadelphia, Ryan charted out an Obamacare repeal vote in the early spring, followed by tax reform. Hill Republicans can accomplish much of that on party-line votes, but they want Trump to say unequivocally what he wants from them on Tuesday.

“We seem to get some conflicting comments from the administration on various policies, where you’ll have the Cabinet … saying one thing and his advisers saying another,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said Monday. “It’s important that the president spell out what the policies are tomorrow night to clarify some of the confusion out there.”…

“He’s said some stuff like, ‘We’re going to cover all people,’ and so that throws a little ambiguity out there as to what exactly that means,” said conservative Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). “And so if he can clarify that, and I think he’s going to, I think he’s going to go beyond the bullet points into some specifics [Tuesday] night.”

He’d better. Last night brought news that Mark Meadows, head of the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus, and Mark Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, are each planning to vote no on the House GOP’s ObamaCare replacement bill because it proposes refundable tax credits to help people buy insurance. That’s a new health-care entitlement, Meadows and Walker claim, and therefore a non-starter. All it would take to kill repeal in the House is 23 Republicans to flip, which means if Trump supports Ryan’s plan for tax credits, he’d better lay down the law to fiscal conservatives tonight and dare them to vote against it. He’ll probably win that test of wills, as surely most red districts are more loyal to Trump than to their individual representative, but he’d need to make it a test first — and according to what’s being leaked to Politico, he’s not planning to get into details about ObamaCare tonight. Ruh roh. We’ll see if he at least mentions protecting entitlements and boosting defense spending, both of which also make fiscal cons anxious or desperate. If he doesn’t seize the opportunity to impose some discipline on the party, he risks a broader revolt among the Freedom Caucus.

Another likely subject tonight: Deconstructing the administrative state, a goal made explicit last week at CPAC by Steve Bannon. One way of going about that, it seems, is … simply not filling vacancies in the bloated federal bureaucracy. An arresting statistic via the Wall Street Journal:

Of 549 key administration positions that require Senate confirmation, just 15 of Mr. Trump’s picks have been confirmed, while an additional 18 await confirmation. For 516 of the positions—or 94% of the total—the White House hasn’t yet nominated a candidate, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that works with the White House and campaigns to professionalize the transfer of power between administrations…

The delay in submitting nominations stems in part from tensions between the agencies and the White House, according to people familiar with the process. Some senior White House advisers have suggested to cabinet secretaries or nominees that they need to be consulted on all personnel and policy decisions, creating friction between the agencies and the White House officials who have been permanently stationed inside their buildings.

Across the entire administration, something like 2,000 positions remain unfilled. Asked about vacancies this morning by Fox, Trump replied, “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have. You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.” No true conservative would disagree, but dozens of unfilled roles are higher-up positions like undersecretaries, department counsel, and even ambassadors. If there are any broader plans to downsize cabinet agencies or consolidate positions, you may get your first glimpse of them tonight.

If he’s smart he’ll spend most of his time talking about jobs, the surest morale-booster in the American political vocabulary. “Trump’s first priority tonight must be to repair his approval ratings with the public and rally popular support to items on his agenda,” writes Michael Dougherty. “And to do that, he has to look beyond his base.” Digressions about the Yemen raid won’t do much there. Long passages about outsourcing and automation might. Oh, and if you’re looking for petty personal squabbles, keep your eye on how Democrats greet Trump as he enters the chamber. Some of them have sworn not to shake his hand because, evidently, that’s what “Resistance” calls for now. Maybe they’ll shake with him on the way out if he ends up proposing that massive amnesty bill he’s been hinting at.