President Trump hit many of the right notes in his State of the Union, offering eloquent phrases about unity, bipartisanship and cooperation.
The problem is that almost no one—not the Democrats and certainly not the media—believes that he intends to govern that way.
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The press more or less discounted his rhetoric before Trump gave the once-delayed speech, and the consensus afterward was that the words would soon evaporate because they wouldn’t lead to concrete action. After all, he had just emerged from the ultimate in partisan paralysis, a 35-day shutdown.
What’s more, Trump departed from the high-minded rhetoric when he delivered a not-so-veiled warning to Nancy Pelosi and company. The economy is booming, he said, and can only be stopped by “foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.” Otherwise, there can’t be legislation.
I get why Trump delivered the brushback pitch, but it underscored the dual nature of the speech. And for the record, both political parties pursue aggressive hearings and investigations when the other party holds the White House. If Pelosi goes too far and the probes seem too personal, the Democrats will face a backlash.
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And when Donald Trump calls for an end to the politics of “revenge” and “retribution,” you can almost hear critics thinking, wasn’t this the guy who yanked Pelosi’s military jet after she stiffed him on the original SOTU?
In terms of the theatrics, either Trump has gotten better at delivering these long speeches or we’ve gotten more accustomed to his style. His use of guests in the audience to humanize political issues—the technique pioneered by Ronald Reagan—was extremely well done. And who can be against fighting AIDS and childhood cancer?
In fact, Trump even got the ladies in white to applaud. Network cameras kept cutting away to the Democratic women wearing white to honor the suffragette movement, and they rose to their feet when Trump talked up how the economy has helped working women. Who woulda thunk it?
Maybe that’s why 76 percent of respondents in a snap CBS poll approved of the address.
But will anything come of the president’s offer to work with Democrats on, for instance, infrastructure and prescription drug prices? He offered no details in the speech.
The unity theme was undercut a few hours earlier when details of an off-the-record presidential luncheon with network anchors leaked to the New York Times. There he was, calling Chuck Schumer a “nasty son of a b—h,” branding Joe Biden “dumb” and taking a shot at “Pocahontas.”
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Now the White House was upset when Trump’s candid comments from a similar off-the-record session leaked a few weeks ago, and I don’t think journalists in the room should violate the agreement. But having been burned before, Trump had to know those kinds of personal slams would leak out, and I suspect he wanted them out.
The speech contained lots of red meat for the base. Trump made his umpteenth pitch for the wall, even if he made no reference to an emergency declaration that he might invoke when the stopgap funding bill expires this month.
And given that Ralph Northam teed it up for him with his controversial comments on late-term abortion, of course Trump was going to denounce the Virginia measure and a similar bill that recently became law in New York.
Most major news outlets tried to capture the dichotomy of the speech.
Dan Balz in the Washington Post:
“There was little new in his address. Even if there were, the president was speaking to a country that for the most part has firm convictions about their feelings toward him. His poll numbers have moved little during two years in office, hovering in one of the narrowest ranges of any modern president. His floor and his ceiling appear to be relatively close together. As president, he has shown no particular ability — or even desire — to expand his support or his coalition.”
Peter Baker in the New York Times, saying the speech “toggled between conciliation and confrontation,” reported:
“President Trump delivered a message of bipartisan unity…but signaled that he would continue to wage war for the hard-line immigration policies that have polarized the capital and the nation.”
John Harris in Politico called it a “dizzying and even disorienting experience, a cascade of rhetorical passages that seemed to contradict each other every few moments. Appeals for unity and bipartisanship jostled with ideological and cultural scab-picking. Theatrics used by all modern presidents to swell the heart or moisten the eye — We are joined in the gallery tonight by … — were followed by the honking boasts of a MAGA rally.”
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This was, by the way, the second-longest SOTU speech ever, trailing only one of Bill Clinton’s stemwinders by six minutes.
Most State of the Union addresses prove to be forgettable. Will this one be old news by the weekend? That seems all too likely unless Trump, and Pelosi, make some moves toward actual cooperation, not just the rhetorical kind.