President Trump did a good job delivering the State of the Union (SotU) last night. He appeared to stay on message, followed the script, and other than few excessive gestures seemed more like a leader than at any time in his presidency. The team that drafted the speech created an overall good speech that appealed to a center-right audience rather than the usual right-wing Breitbart and nativist audience. This could be the first sign of the administration trying to expand its base. I have watched every SotU for almost 45 years and written about them since the Reagan years. While this was not among the most memorable, we will soon see what impact it has. To be clear, I am not sold that tis is the start of a new Trump chapter. However, we will soon see whether the speech changes anything. At a minimum, we have a glimpse into the President’s stated priorities for this year.
The speech was shy on specifics, but that is fairly common with the SotU. Most presidents begin with some cheerleading for the past year and then try and lay out a general agenda for the coming year. This is rarely the time for detailed explanation of the legislative initiatives and negotiations. Presidents cajole members of both parties to come together for the greater good to achieve success for the nation, especially concerning issues where there is a basis for cooperation. This could prove to be a critical development if the result is a sincere effort. For the past year, Democrats have focused on their role as the opposition and Republicans have not allowed Democrats to play any role or have any say in the agenda for either chamber. For the good of the nation, let’s hope this year produces coordination and compromise on major legislation. Compromise is required to govern and was anticipated in the Constitution. Hard line intransigence works against the interests of the nation.
The speech had moments of unity where everyone stood and applauded. These were issues surrounding the military, veterans, and the special guests in the gallery being recognized. Some pundits criticized the Democrats for not standing more frequently, specifically for some of the positive economic news. It is true that President Trump was taking credit for trends that were legacies of President Obama, but that is how presidential economics works. It is okay to acknowledge positive news and fight over the credit later. Although it is easier to demonstrate unity on national security issues, some of the focus on North Korea was odd. The country is united on this like no other issue; agreeing that a nuclear North Korea poses a serious threat and that the regime is the most repressive in the word. The focus in the gallery was unnecessary, unless of course the President was seriously beating the drums for war. There was strong approval when he discussed success against ISIS, but of course this was simply a continuation of the Obama strategy, thus more stolen credit. The President failed to use the opportunity to discuss Russia or China, the biggest national security threats facing our country. His reference to firing federal employees, though vague and undeveloped, certainly created cause for concern over his authoritarian tendencies and many believe this was a veiled threat against the Department of Justice and Mueller probe.
Some pundits say the speech turned dark when President Trump raised immigration. This part of the speech had the most detail because the President reiterated the four pillars of his immigration plan that he had released previously: 1. DACA Protection; 2. Border Security; 3. Diversity Lottery; and 4. Chain Migration. I believe it is extremely likely that a majority of both parties can work a comprehensive agreement on immigration. The President has now publicly laid out a blueprint and indicated a willingness to work a deal. This can and will get done unless one of two things occur. First, Speaker Ryan could prevent the House from voting on the bill to appease the right-wing Freedom Caucus. It would pass overwhelmingly with Democrats and Republicans, but Speaker Ryan refuses to stand up to the Freedom Caucus no matter what the issue. Second, President Trump could renege on such a deal yet again. This could happen under the influence of nativist Stephen Miller or even Chief of Staff Kelly. The other area of likely bipartisan compromise is infrastructure. We are decades overdue in repairing our crumbling and unsafe bridges, tunnels, and highways. There are plenty of recent examples of railroad issues and our airports are so outdated that they challenge efficiency and viability of our air travel system. The biggest challenge here is money. We simply do not have the trillions of dollars necessary to spend to do all that is critical, let alone discretionary modernization. Yet we must.
There are some notable issues the President chose not to address. He made one brief reference to coal but avoided any discussion of the environment. He is beholden to Climate Change deniers, but there were some themes he could have included. I was pleasantly surprised there was no mention of abortion and support that decision. The Senate just rejected an abortion bill, but there was not a lot of public debate. The speech was clearly designed to reach a broader audience, perhaps as a first step towards building consensus on several issues. To that end, the speech avoided some of the historically divisive issues we may have expected to hear. He had to speak about immigration because Congress is compelled to reach an agreement on DACA and border security and because it was the central issue for his electoral base.
President Trump probably clapped a bit too much for himself and I thought it was amusing that he seemed to direct the Democrats to stand and clap for a couple of issues that he knew they would appreciate. The SotU is not about standing and clapping or the place for intense negotiations. Throughout history it has been a time for national unity. The entire government (theoretically) comes together while millions of Americans watch on TV. They see their President and Congressional leaders gather to review the nation’s progress and set the groundwork for the future. The recent hyper-partisanship has diminished the occasion and reduced the meaning and pageantry of the moment. Nevertheless, it is a time to reflect on what makes our democracy work and the strength and determination of our people. Hopefully it inspires people. The bar is set low after the President’s first year and the speech, specifically the agenda, was surely imperfect. Nobody heard everything they wanted to hear last night, but it was the first step moving forward and the country needs it. The key point is that it was not his typical speech to his right-wing base and hopefully that matters.
I will not spend too much time on the Democratic response because the SotU is what counts each year no matter who gives it. Having five responses is a clown show, totally inappropriate, and serves as strong evidence of the demise of the Democratic Party that we knew. I will post more on that on the blog later this week. That said, Congressman Kennedy gave a good speech in what appeared to be the main response. He spoke about traditional core Democratic values. He included disaffected working families that had abandoned Democrats. I liked the contrast wherein he highlighted that the Trump administration constantly divides the American people, forcing voters to choose between priorities, but that Democrats should refuse those choices and focus on all priorities.
There are certain pundits criticizing the Democrats for not publicly resisting during the speech. These pundits claim the Democrats should have responded vocally in the chamber to specific parts, should have gotten up and walked out en masse after certain parts, and engage in other more demonstrative behavior. What a terrible mistake. First, the President’s words were those he has spoken plenty of times before and nothing new. Rep Joe Wilson’s, “You Lie!” during an Obama SotU was a terrible breach of decorum, one not repeated. If Democrats interrupted the speech vocally or by walking out as a group they would have broken decorum and would have lost in the end for doing so. It is one thing, an important thing, for citizens to hold rallies to express their opposition to President Trump’s policies and behavior. Hopefully these rallies will garner support and lead to results at the polls in 2018 and 2020. Our elected leaders, however, need to behave like professionals and adults. You never violate the decorum and sanctity of the chamber. This is especially true because the speech itself focused a lot on bi-partisanship and not the usual Trump firebrand right-wing, nationalist rally.
President Trump will likely get a boost in his approval ratings for the speech (at least until the next round of tweets). The Democrats clearly demonstrated their disapproval last night. Anything more in the chamber would have been morally wrong and I believe would have cost them in the polls. Democrats misjudged the recent shutdown and learned quickly it would cost them support in the midterms this year. Democratic voters and members of Congress may despise the President and disagree with everything he does. However, as long as he is President, and right now that appears to be at least through 2020, they cannot pass any legislation without his support. If protections for DACA are critical, and they are, that can only happen by working with Republicans and with the President’s signature. The nation faces significant challenges at home and abroad. Like it or not, everyone must play their role, or we lose our country. Fight the elections and govern the nation.