The annual State of the Union address to Congress, with the Supreme Court and Joint Chiefs in the room, along with the vice president and every cabinet member save one – the designated survivor should the bad guys decide to blow up the place – is the big boring event of the year. It’s really an address to the American people – which they generally shrug off and ignore. It’s always the same thing. Things are wonderful. But they could be better. But they’re pretty wonderful, really – because the current occupant of the White House is wonderful as is his or her party. It’s an infomercial. There are no surprises – other than that odd time Lyndon Johnson said Doctor King and his friends were right and something ought to be done – like passing Johnson’s civil right legislation. And then that old white man from Texas said those words – “We Shall Overcome” – which shook things up a bit. George W. Bush said we were all going to die – unless we did something about Saddam Hussein, like right now. That wasn’t very nice and that certainly wasn’t true, but Johnson and Bush were the exceptions. This is an infomercial. In fact, there could be a short form for the standard quite unexceptional State of the Union address: The state of the union is strong. You’re welcome.
No one uses the short form. There was last year:
President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address clocked in at a whopping 1 hour and 20 minutes – making it the third-longest State of the Union in history.
The award for the longest address goes to President Bill Clinton’s final State of the Union in 2000, which was just 9 minutes longer than Trump’s. Clinton spoke for 1 hour and 29 minutes. Clinton also holds the title for second-longest State of the Union – his address in 1995 was 1 hour and 25 minutes.
And no one remembers a word that was said in any of the three, but there is this year:
President Donald Trump heads into his State of the Union address dogged by bruising midterm losses and sinking poll numbers, wounded by a blistering standoff with Democrats. But for the stately speech, he plans to embrace unity – at least for the night.
“Choosing Greatness” is the official White House theme.
This should be interesting. In the past Donald Trump has pretty much promised to unite the country against Muslims and “Mexicans” and those Black Lives Matter thugs, who want to kill policemen, and Colin Kaepernick, and gays too, and urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and those goofy scientists and “Hollywood” – whatever that means – and against anyone who doesn’t consider Jesus Christ his or her personal savior – with the exception of a few Jewish folks – and against the Chinese too, and Mexicans and Canadians and Japan and South Korea and the NATO folks – all of whom have been humiliating us for decades. Perhaps he has something different in mind this time. Choose Greatness! Choose a Wall!
That doesn’t seem unifying, but this is a difficult situation. This year he has been slapped down. This State of the Union will be a week late. Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic speaker of the new Democratic House of Representatives would not invite him to speak until the government shutdown was over. The president must be “invited” by Congress to give this address. He can’t just show up. Congress is a coequal branch of government – the Constitution says so – so that was not his call. He said he’d show up anyway and give the damned address, no matter what she said. She told him don’t even try that – and then someone in the White House sat him down and explained slowly and carefully – using only small words, and perhaps pictures – that she was right. He had to wait for an invitation.
That was humiliating, as was how he ended the government shutdown. He caved. He got no money for his big wall – he got nothing – but he called off the shutdown– so parties could talk about the issues without destroying people’s lives and the economy too – exactly as all parties had agreed to in late December of the previous year, as he had agreed to, until he changed his mind – because that was brave and forceful and noble or something. And then he changed his mind back. And then he was no longer brave and forceful and noble – Nancy was. And then she said he’d been a good little boy and now he could give his cute little speech.
She didn’t put it that way. She didn’t have to. He must have been seething. There was nothing he could do about any of this – other than to make his State of the Union address as nasty as possible. He could rip her to pieces. He could have his revenge.
Nothing is that simple. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey explain why:
When President Trump delivers his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, a Democrat will be seated at the rostrum over his shoulder for the first time.
The presence of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will bring into fresh relief not only the power shift in the Capitol, with the opposition party now able to thwart the president’s agenda, but also the converging pressures on Trump that have brought his presidency to a crossroads.
It seems that everything went wrong:
Trump dealt himself a political defeat with the 35-day partial government shutdown. He has secured no funding to construct a border wall and is preparing to declare a national emergency to fulfill his campaign promise. He is again at odds with the nation’s intelligence chiefs and some senators in his own party. The Russia investigation, which has ensnared several of the president’s allies, appears to be nearing its conclusion. New congressional oversight investigations will start soon. And the race to defeat him at the ballot box has kicked off in earnest.
The idea here is that time is running out and this is a last chance to get at least some things right, but that this may be the wrong time for that:
The challenges mount at a moment when Trump is as unchecked and isolated as ever. Inside the White House, aides describe a chaotic, freewheeling atmosphere reminiscent of the early weeks of Trump’s presidency.
Power has consolidated around presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior adviser who is functioning as a de facto White House chief of staff. With counterweights like ousted chief of staff John F. Kelly gone, some advisers say the West Wing has the feel of the 26th floor of Trump Tower, where an unrestrained Trump had absolute control over his family business and was free to follow his impulses.
That makes Jared Kushner the nation’s last best hope in keeping his father-in-law from doing something stupid, like nuking Honduras or suspending the Constitution, because no one else is there to stop him:
Mick Mulvaney, who has replaced Kelly in an acting capacity, has said he is trying to manage the staff but not the president, according to administration officials. He has told friends that he shuttles in and out of the Oval Office and meets alone with Trump twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening, for about 15 minutes each. Asked at a recent dinner whether he was acting as a gatekeeper, Mulvaney laughed and said, “I’m not trying to stop him from doing things,” according to the officials.
“I don’t think he’s even trying to mask the fact that he is operating as the head of a family-owned business instead of the head of one of the most powerful countries in the world,” said Omarosa Manigault Newman, who starred on Trump’s NBC reality show, “The Apprentice,” and worked for him in the White House before having a public falling out with the president after she was fired.
No one questions him, so that makes the State of the Union address a bit problematic:
This raises the question of whether on Tuesday, Trump might use his annual address to a joint session of Congress – and to a prime-time national television audience – to make a course correction and seek to expand his appeal or to burrow in on conflicts with the opposition party, chiefly over illegal immigration and border security.
Trump said last week that his address would be about “unification,” but that theme belies the president’s combative instincts and the indifference – even hostility – he has shown toward congressional negotiations.
“He may mouth bromide of national unity, but if he points to people in the gallery and says, in effect, immigrants of color are coming to kill you, that would undermine whatever pretense,” said Michael Waldman, who as chief White House speechwriter helped pen President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union address in the wake of two government shutdowns between 1995 and 1996.
“At other points, presidents facing dropping poll numbers have chosen to be very conciliatory or very optimistic,” Waldman said. “That would surprise everyone here. I don’t know that it’s in Trump’s repertoire. When he does it, it feels like he’s reading under duress from the teleprompter – and everybody knows when he gets back to the White House, he’ll start tweeting again.”
And everyone knows where that leads:
Trump’s natural disposition is to fight, and this is an especially adversarial moment for the president as he battles for building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and chastises congressional Democrats and the news media.
Trump has said he is on the verge of declaring a national emergency, which would trigger executive powers to attempt to redirect some federal funds toward border wall construction without approval from Congress.
“We’ve set the stage for what’s going to happen,” Trump said last week.
Any such move is likely to draw legal challenges and spark a political firestorm, and some administration lawyers have questioned the president’s authority to do so, but plans have been developed for an emergency declaration nonetheless.
The man fights. He doesn’t unify anyone or anything. That’s girly stuff. But nothing is that simple either:
In pursuit of a wall, Trump has few options. He does not want another government shutdown, believing that he was politically pummeled over the last one, and House Democrats have made clear they will not vote to fund wall construction ahead of the Feb. 15 deadline to pass a new homeland security spending bill.
Senate Republicans also are overwhelmingly resistant to declaring a national emergency, according to two senior GOP aides. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) privately cautioned Trump last week that doing so could divide the GOP and told the president that Congress might pass a resolution disapproving an emergency declaration.
Everyone is turning on him, and that means everyone:
Meanwhile, Trump was brooding last week over a former White House aide, Cliff Sims, whose tell-all book depicts dysfunction and disloyalty in the West Wing. Staffers brought excerpts of Sims’s book to the president and defended themselves against their ex-colleague’s portrayal, which advisers said only further agitated Trump, who dismissed Sims as a low-level “gofer.”
Trump has been less focused on the memoir of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) – who wrote scathingly about Kushner but sympathetically about the president – though he told aides that he has not “loved” all of Christie’s comments during his media tour, according to a senior White House official.
The president also was angered by news coverage of his intelligence leaders, including Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and their testimony before Congress, where they contradicted the president on several national security issues, including North Korea, Iran and the status of the Islamic State. But officials said he did not read the testimony – he only saw the news accounts – and was assuaged when the intelligence officials explained to him what they told senators.
They explained to him what they told the senators. They lied to keep him calm. They hope he won’t go back and watch their on-record on-camera testimony in open session. They said what they said. But as long as they say “we didn’t say that” everything will be fine. He’s not a curious man. These folks said he’s still wonderful and smarter than everyone. That’ll keep him calm, as will this:
Over the weekend, Trump tried to escape the troubles in Washington by making his first trip in two months to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. After spending Christmas at the White House, the president jetted to Palm Beach, Fla., where he played golf with two sports legends.
“Great morning at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods” Trump tweeted Saturday along with a photo of the three smiling.
They’ll tell him he’s the best golfer who ever lived – better than the two of them combined – and the world will be safe from global thermonuclear war for another few days.
That works, but E. J. Dionne sees this:
Trump is an incumbent who behaves as if he is in the opposition. He relishes bemoaning the terrible things happening to the country on his watch – after two years of unified Republican government.
At the same time, it’s hard to recall a president more boastful about how great he is and how he has accomplished more than anyone who has ever held his job, which presumably includes Washington, Lincoln and FDR.
That makes for mixed messaging:
Trump told us years ago in “The Art of the Deal” that he engages in “truthful hyperbole,” which can “play to people’s fantasies.” The problem is that we never know for certain if the fantasist himself believes the tales he is spinning.
The latest fantasy, described Friday to journalists by Trump aides, is that his speech Tuesday will be a unifying, bipartisan call to end old divisions and heal old wounds.
Good luck with that, especially because his aides say he’ll also focus a large part of his speech on immigration.
Will he be able to stay away from his staple references to “criminal aliens,” “drug dealers” and those coyotes he loves to summon?
And how credible can calls for bipartisanship be from a man who predicted Thursday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) might someday be “begging for a wall”?
Dionne is arguing that Trump is trapped:
Trump can never get too upbeat, because he decided long ago that his political project depends on inciting anxiety and anger as well as hostility toward (nonwhite) outsiders. This requires him to conjure a dystopian world because what he fears most is a world in which fear is abating.
There was one truly unforgettable line in his inaugural address: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” But the carnage can never end because Trump must argue he and his wall are all that stand between us and chaos, gangs and coyotes.
And that’s just not true:
This isn’t working. Even members of that base he’s obsessed with expect the president they voted for to solve problems and not simply exploit them. That’s why his core support is shrinking. The survey number that should trouble Trump most is a recent Post-ABC News poll finding that only 28 percent of Americans said they would definitely vote for him in 2020. Maybe that’s why Trump’s lieutenants insist he’ll try something different this week.
But he is trapped:
No matter how hard his speechwriters work to make him buoyant and collegial, Trump needs to depict a country facing a petrifying crisis. It’s the only way he can justify what he does.
But that’s not working, is it? Max Boot thinks he knows why. The Democrats changed. They’re not what they used to be:
President Bill Clinton was determined to show he was not a typical “liberal,” a term that had become an epithet. As governor of Arkansas and candidate for president, he denounced hip-hop artist Sister Souljah for justifying black-on-white violence and refused to grant clemency to cop-killer Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed despite his mental incompetence. As president, he signed a welfare-reform bill over the anguished protests of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and balanced the budget while proclaiming that “the era of big government is over.”
Many Democrats were unhappy with this “triangulation,” but they gritted their teeth because Clinton also attempted to expand health-care coverage and keep abortion legal – and he was better than the Republicans. For the same reasons, Democrats overcame their qualms over the Clintons’ personal conduct, ranging from dodgy financial deals (cattle futures, Whitewater) to his treatment of women, which led to credible accusations of sexual harassment and even rape. Democrats were the feminist party, but they made excuses for Clinton that they would never have made for a Republican.
This was a mess that was all too obvious:
You can argue that in 2016, Democrats paid a heavy price for years of compromises. Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump because her image was already so tarnished. Trump could get away with calling her “Crooked Hillary,” unfair as the charge was, because she had violated government regulations by using a private email server and she had tolerated the appearance of conflicts of interest among Clinton Foundation donors. Hillary Clinton, for her part, had to pull her punches on Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct because she had spent decades excusing her own husband’s peccadillos. After the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, Trump even fought back by appearing with Bill Clinton’s female accusers.
And then, somehow, that didn’t matter anymore:
The party has shifted sharply leftward since 2016. All of its presidential contenders in the Senate – Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I.-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) – voted against a resolution warning against the “precipitous withdrawal” of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Save for Klobuchar, they are all championing Medicare-for-all, free college tuition, a Green New Deal and other expensive programs.
When asked how to pay for this wish list, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) advocated hiking the top marginal income tax rate to 70 percent – and received a largely positive reaction from a party that had spent decades trying to shake its “tax and spend” image.
Axios reports that polling of the Democratic electorate in Iowa “found that ‘socialism’ had a net positive rating, while ‘capitalism’ had a net negative rating.” In this progressive environment, Axios notes, moderates such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and former vice president Joe Biden are questioning whether they can compete for the nomination. And even the progressive candidates have to make abject apologies for offenses such as being pro-Wall Street or tough on crime.
To be clear, Max Boot hates all this as much as he hates Trump’s nonsense, because Boot is an old-fashioned careful conservative – “The United States already has one extremist party; it doesn’t need another.” But he hints at the larger issue here. The state of the union really is strong. It’s simply not the union he prefers – but it may be the union the people actually prefer.