There are few bully pulpits bigger than the annual State of the Union address, an event that traditionally commands a large national audience. Yet, the question before President Trump on Tuesday night was not who was watching the speech, but rather who was listening.
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. Despite some of the flourishes in his speech Tuesday night, the reality is that he has turned to fear and caustic criticism of his opponents when in a political fight.
Tuesday’s State of the Union address was two speeches in one. One part was a plea for unity and a recounting of legislative progress and economic success. The other was a combative message that highlighted deep divisions between the president and Democrats, most significantly over the issue of illegal immigration and his call for a border wall.
The coming year promises to be especially challenging for the president. Events on the horizon are likely to stoke more conflict with congressional Democrats. At some point, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will deliver his report to the Justice Department, a moment that could put the president in peril. Other investigations probing the Trump Organization and the president’s inaugural committee are underway.
In the days after the midterm elections, Trump warned that if Democrats launched investigations, any hope for cooperation would be gone. On Tuesday, he signaled his unease about what might be coming when he warned that “foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations” could derail the economic progress underway. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
The image of a watchful House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over the president’s shoulder underscored one way in which things have changed for the president and what could be coming. He has found in Pelosi, likely to his dismay, a skilled and steely adversary who leads a diverse new Democratic majority in the House. Those Democrats ran and won last fall on an agenda that, in almost all respects, is the antithesis of the president’s program.
In normal times, a president can use the State of the Union to try to reset and restart, to move from the issues of the previous year to an agenda for the future. But the opening weeks of the 116th Congress have been a time of rancor, division and gamesmanship. They have set a tone that an address that included calls for bipartisan cooperation and American greatness will not easily overcome.
The standoff over funding for a border wall, which led to the 35-day partial government shutdown and threatens a second, is a more telling indicator of the mood in Washington than calls for bipartisan cooperation. When the president sought to project a more unifying message, the reaction of Democrats conveyed the skepticism with which they received those words. At moments of partisanship, the House chamber rang out with chants of “USA! USA!” from Republicans, as Democrats sat stern-faced.
Like all presidents, Trump used part of his speech on Tuesday evening to point to his successes. The economy is one of the biggest, with unemployment low, wages rising, economic growth continuing on a solid pace and a jobs report just last week that showed the addition of 304,000 jobs in January, despite the shutdown.
All things being equal, that is the kind of record that any president would welcome two years ahead of a reelection campaign. But to date, there is little evidence that the economic record has changed many minds about the president’s overall performance. It did not help Republicans during the midterm elections last fall, when Democrats gained a net of 40 seats in the House.
Trump pointed to more than the economy as evidence that he has gotten things done in the face of deep partisan divisions in the country. Last year, Congress came together on criminal justice reform, took steps to combat the deadly opioid crisis that ravages many parts of the country and passed a farm bill.
On Tuesday, he talked about areas of possible future agreement. One area is an infrastructure initiative, but he has talked about that in the past with nothing to show for it. He also mentioned trying to lower the cost of prescription drugs, but the prospect of the parties coming together on the issue of health care, after a decade of partisan division, remains doubtful.
Republicans, even those who are not true supporters of the president, can cheer other areas of success by the president, among them the big tax cut bill approved in 2017, the paring back of the regulatory structure that has been a hallmark of his executive actions, and the steady remaking of the federal judiciary through the nomination and confirmation of conservative justices and judges.
Those achievements have helped to maintain loyalty between the president and Republican elected officials, even in difficult times. GOP politicians have stayed with Trump longer than many had predicted. That is in recognition of the transformation of the Republican Party into the party of Trump and the fact that elected leaders are wary of risking the wrath of those GOP voters.
How long that loyalty will remain is another question. Some cracks have occurred. The Senate vote in opposition to the president’s call for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan is one example. More could be in the offing. If, in the absence of an agreement between congressional Democrats and Republicans on spending for border security, the president declares a national emergency to force funding for the wall, Republicans will face another moment of truth.
With the opening stages of the 2020 presidential campaign already underway, the window for cooperation will be fast to close. In reality, support for bipartisan cooperation appears further away than ever, based on some recent polling by the Pew Research Center.
For example, 58 percent of Americans currently oppose any significant expansion of the wall along the border with Mexico. That is not much different from a year ago, but the Pew survey last month found that the spread between Republicans and Democrats has widened. GOP support for the wall is at a record high while Democratic support is at a record low.
Last fall, Pew found that majorities wanted to see more cooperation between Trump and congressional Democrats. But last month, 7 in 10 Democrats said their leaders should hang tough and not give in to Trump, “even if less gets done in Washington.” Republicans are more divided on whether to compromise or confront the Democrats, but overall, 7 in 10 Americans say they expect more, not less, partisan warfare this year.
That’s the country that tuned in — or didn’t — to the president’s address on Tuesday night, a country long divided and one as deeply polarized as ever over the Trump presidency.