President Trump sought to project a positive and unifying message in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but controversies, including of his own making, followed him into the House chamber. They were a reminder of the challenges he faces in converting rhetoric into real changes in his administration.
For the hour and 20 minutes during which he spoke, Trump commanded the nation's focus with a review of successes and an outline of his second-year priorities. And yet, the record of the past year shows that the president has chosen to stir controversy and stoke existing partisanship rather than do the harder work of bringing the country together.
As he spoke, there were signs of the challenges ahead. On the floor of the House, elected officials sat opposite one another across the center aisle, angrily divided over the pending release of a memo from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that they say points to FBI misconduct in the Russia investigation. The partisan argument underscored anew the degree to which Trump's presidency is clouded by his actions and often shaped by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation.
In the public balconies were the guests of members of both parties and of the White House. Many were genuine heroes, but there were others in the audience who were proxies for current conflicts. They included a group of "dreamers," the undocumented young people whose fate is to be determined in the coming weeks. Trump has proposed a package that he called a down-the-center compromise, but to win passage, he will have to overcome strong opposition — some on the right, but much more on the left.
Throughout the speech, Trump paid tribute to acts of courage, sacrifice and heroism that he said embody "the beauty of America's soul and the steel in America's spine." They included Americans who responded to hurricanes, wildfires or the mass shooting in Las Vegas; and others who suffered losses of loved ones or who showed bravery in the face of danger.
Those tributes were many of the most effective moments of the speech. He also said: "But it is not enough to come together only in times of tragedy. Tonight, 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 we were elected to serve."
The countdown to the president's address underscored the partisan climate of the country in the opening weeks of Trump's second year in office. On the day of most State of the Union addresses, the pre-speech chatter on cable television is all about what the president will say and how it will be received. On Tuesday, the conversation was more about the controversial memo, divisions between the president and the Justice Department and the future of the Russia investigation.
Trump had a positive story to tell about the economy, which continued to grow steadily over the past year. The jobless rate is at its lowest level in 17 years, and wages have begun to rise. The stock market has set record after record, though the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 363 points on Tuesday after a big decline on Monday.
The passage of the Republican tax cut has prompted companies to give bonuses to workers, announce new investments and promise more jobs. The president has been a cheerleader calling for more, as he did at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. All this has put economic optimism higher than it has been in nearly two decades.
The president also highlighted conservative priorities that he and his party have jointly pushed in an effort to redirect the government. He pointed to a reduction in regulations on businesses and energy producers, to the confirmation of conservative judges and to his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
"For the last year, we have sought to restore the bonds of trust between our citizens and their government," he said. But it was a selective interpretation of that relationship, one shared more by his loyalists than by others.
The record he cited and the priorities he outlined drew enthusiastic applause from Republicans in the chamber. Democrats appeared unmoved throughout much of the event. Nowhere was the gap greater than when the president noted that African American unemployment was at an all-time low. Republicans rose in unison and cheered. Meanwhile, the African American Democratic members of the House sat silently and grim-faced across the chamber.
When Trump campaigned for the White House, he survived events that would have caused substantial damage to most other politicians. But if nothing bad stuck to him during the campaign, nothing good seems to stick long either. He has seen few political dividends for the positive developments that have occurred on this watch. When he spoke to a joint session of Congress last February, his approval rating in the Gallup weekly tracking was 43 percent positive, 51 percent negative. Today, despite the economic news, it is 38 percent positive and 58 percent negative.
There are many reasons, but one is this: Since he last spoke to Congress, Trump has fired an FBI director (James B. Comey), openly criticized his attorney general and onetime political ally (Jeff Sessions), repeatedly vilified a deputy FBI director (Andrew McCabe, who on Monday suddenly resigned his position ahead of schedule) and, as was reported last week, wanted to fire Mueller last summer, only to be blocked when White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign. Now he appears to be at odds with the Justice Department, which has warned against releasing the intelligence committee's partisan memo.
The president's calls for unity and bipartisanship also came with an obvious political motivation. Elected officials in both parties are already keenly focused on the November midterm elections. As the party that holds the White House, Republicans are automatically on the defensive. Trump's personal standing makes the head winds stiffer.
The GOP's House majority is in jeopardy, though Democrats have work to do to win the necessary seats to take control. But should that happen, the president would face a far different atmosphere in the House chamber at his 2019 State of the Union — one of even stiffer and more aggressive resistance by the opposition and more partisan conflict heading toward 2020.
Republicans hope to change the focus away from the president's behavior to the benefits they have promised from the new tax bill. In that spirit, Trump sought to project a unifying posture on Tuesday night — more optimism and less divisiveness and an agenda that he said should appeal to politicians in both parties.
With the GOP's Senate majority whittled to a bare minimum, any legislative progress this year will require the president and GOP leaders to win over some Democrats. But Democrats know that cooperation with the White House comes at a potential cost: a backlash from the party's progressive base, which prefers resistance to reconciliation.
So the test is not how well the president delivered his State of the Union. It will be how he deals with the problems that will confront him in the coming months. Does he have a plan for North Korea that will achieve the objectives he has been resolute in outlining? Can he be the dealmaker he promised and bring about an immigration compromise? Can he woo Democrats to pass a big infrastructure package? Most important, what will happen on the Russia investigation? Will he act impulsively or allow Mueller to complete his work?