The traditional State of the Union Address was delayed this year due to political struggles over federal government financing, and Trump’s speech confirmed that he has lost his fight with Democrats
Donald Trump evidently can’t do himself any good on such occasions. While he behaves like a folk humorist at political rallies, he tries to give the impression of a great statesman in more formal addresses. That was obvious during Tuesday’s appearance in Congress, which simply lacked the energy of the billionaire’s campaign three years ago. Where have those times gone? You didn’t exactly have to be a Trump sympathizer to derive a certain pleasure from the ease with which he harangued his opponents back then. But his lackadaisical jabber in Congress was more likely to make you drowsy, and the further things go, the more this holds true for his presidency.
Last weekend, reporters Jonathan Swan and Alexi McCammond published three months’ worth of the president’s work schedule. About 60 percent consisted of “executive time.” On first hearing, it may sound like Trump has a hefty workload. But by all indications a large part of this “output” consists of watching television and tweeting. Trump is still capable of using his media appearances to seize an awful lot of attention for himself. But all along, it’s accurate that in spite of all the hubbub he hasn’t pushed through anything earth-shattering. There has been tax reform and a load of conservative judicial nominations, but those are banal things, necessary steps for any Republican president, rather than grandiose Trumpisms. According to a recent New York Times analysis, congressional Republicans have been much more responsible than the president for advancing any actual agenda.
The report on the State of the Union is an occasion when the American president announces his further plans. Trump was restrained in his opening when he called for overcoming partisan differences. Then he boasted of economic success, about which one could argue heartily. How much credit he alone deserves is questionable, as is the accuracy of certain numbers he quoted.
Most of the time Trump was applauded mainly by the Republican half of Congress, understandably. The exception was the moment when he celebrated the fact that 58 percent of new jobs last year were filled by women. A large group of newly elected Democratic congresswomen interpreted that in their own way. An unprecedented number of women were just elected in last year’s congressional races – and most of them have no liking for Trump. The congresswomen, most of whom showed up for Trump’s speech dressed in white as an allusion to the suffragette movement, high-fived each other – and some even danced. “You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump added with a smile. The applause was sometimes accompanied by people chanting “U-S-A,” which first happened at Trump’s anniversary address last year. Still, it comes across as inappropriate.
Trump’s patronizing attempts to sound like a unifier who transcends partisan interests are comical, not only because of the 35-day federal government shutdown. This week, The New York Times wrote about a luncheon that the president savored with television moderators. During the course of the meal he reportedly labeled former Vice President Joe Biden as “dumb,” Sen. Chuck Schumer as a “nasty son of a b--,” and opined that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, in the middle of his own current scandal, had “choked like a dog.” So much for appeals to unity.
Overall, Trump uttered only one truly meaningful, concrete promise: He insists he will build his wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. After a month-long shutdown, which, according to studies, cost Trump several percentage points of support, and even among his core voters, that’s hard to believe. Not even his biggest ally, Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is willing to back up his plan. Trump has already lost one duel over the wall, and it’s unlikely a repeated confrontation will change anything. On the other hand, one can hardly wonder at his behavior. Next year he’ll have to defend his mandate. If he doesn’t get his wall passed, what will he have to offer voters in contrast to other Republicans? Tweeting while watching TV is something he can do somewhere other than the White House.