HAVING BEEN forced to delay his State of the Union address by a government shutdown that he precipitated, President Trump seemed as though he might never yield the podium once he got his chance Tuesday night. In a speech that reflected endurance if not eloquence, Mr. Trump offered a thin sheen of “unity” over large helpings of the same old polarizing demagoguery.
“We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions,” Mr. Trump declared. If those were truly his goals, he would have committed not to declare a phony state of emergency in order to build his wall against congressional wishes. He would not have recycled at great length his inflammatory and false portrayal of a “tremendous onslaught” of illegal immigrants. He would not have slandered the governor of Virginia as having pledged to “execute” newborn babies, and he would not have made the absurd and nervous-sounding claim that “ridiculous partisan investigations” threaten national prosperity and security.
Mr. Trump fairly saluted the one substantial bipartisan accomplishment of his presidency, passage of criminal-justice reform. He also mentioned areas of possible future bipartisan agreement, such as investing in the country’s roads, rails and airports and lowering prescription drug prices. Yet even in these areas there will be no progress without serious, nitty-gritty legislating and compromise. Wide partisan gaps exist on questions such as how to fund an infrastructure package. Mr. Trump’s inconsistent negotiating style, ignorance of detail, short attention span and maximalist demands make such compromise more difficult. If there is going to be bipartisan accomplishment in this Congress — and, with Democrats now controlling the House, any accomplishment will have to be bipartisan — lawmakers will have to take the lead.
In fact, Tuesday’s speech underscored the need for lawmakers to reclaim Congress’s prerogative on trade, foreign policy and other key issues from an impetuous, drifting president. Mr. Trump on Tuesday termed “calamitous” the decades of trade policies that in fact have helped produce the quality of life Americans enjoy while spreading prosperity around the globe. His unfounded claims included his insistence that the North American Free Trade Agreement was a “catastrophe,” that the United States would be in a “major war” with North Korea had he not been elected and that Venezuela’s collapse shows why Americans should reject “new calls to adopt socialism in our country.”
Lawmakers should insist on more oversight of the president’s use of national security as pretext to raise trade barriers. They should reaffirm U.S. support for democratic values and human rights, stand up to the encroachments of authoritarian states, defend traditional alliances, and resist a premature withdrawal from the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Congress also could try to make progress on the nation’s greatest challenges, which Mr. Trump neglected in his speech as in his governing. He made no mention of climate change, even as the planet’s prospects grow ever more alarming. He said nothing about rising wealth inequality, which his tax reform exacerbated. Nor did he discuss the country’s rapidly rising debt, which Mr. Trump also has worsened.
If the health of the union is to improve over the coming year, Congress will have to take the initiative.