As he is sometimes able, President Donald Trump summoned his dignity, suppressed his grievances and read scripted words uneventfully for 80 minutes Tuesday night in his first State of the Union address. It amounted to an elegy for what might’ve been.
Rhetorically, the speech was more or less normal. It avoided the belligerence of Trump’s inaugural and the bombast of his rallies. Despite some rumbling about North Korea, there were no explicit threats to use nuclear weapons. Progress, you might say.
Policy-wise, the speech was more ambitious – and thus more disappointing. Trump invited bipartisan support for a big infrastructure deal and a bargain on immigration. He called for a national effort to combat opioid addiction. He expressed enthusiasm for job training, vocational schools and prison reform. Harmony was an unexpected theme: “I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
These are reasonable (if debatable) policies and sentiments. In fact, if Trump had acted on them faithfully – as he promised to do in a speech to Congress last year – his presidency might now look very different.
By reaching out to the opposition, as most new presidents do, he might have disrupted some of Washington’s stale orthodoxies. By making infrastructure a legislative priority, he might have built some bipartisan goodwill while laying the groundwork for growth. By being less inflammatory on immigration, he might have secured a compromise of the kind he now envisions.
Instead, Trump burned much of his first year trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, then advanced a cynical tax cut. In between, he spent his time attending to self-made crises and tweeting acrimoniously. About the only aspect of his presidency that had a veneer of bipartisanship were his insults.
The consequences were predictable. Despite a strong economy, Trump’s approval rating is the worst on record at the one-year mark. Even Democrats who might be inclined to work with a Republican president offering to spend billions on public works may now hesitate. And while an immigration compromise is possible, the debate is as bitter and polarized as ever – made all the more so by the kind of fear-mongering the president voiced in this very speech.
Now, with bridges burned and capital spent, Trump will face his most daunting tests yet. With elections looming, Congress has diminished room for compromise. With tensions simmering overseas, a crisis may soon materialize. No one knows where the special counsel’s investigation will lead, but Trump’s attempts to derail it only portend disaster. It’s not unreasonable to fear the ways in which this president – with his agenda stalled and his associates under fire – will occupy his time.
“I would consider it a great achievement if we could make our country united,” Trump said in advance of the speech. Indeed it would be. Alas, for the 45th president, this realization seems to have dawned all too late.