President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech changed nothing.
There was no “pivot.” There was no fresh approach to nation’s problems or its political stalemate in Washington. There was no new Trump.
Instead, the president, who spoke for well over an hour, was a slightly more sedate version of the one Americans have, for better or worse, become accustomed to. He offered “an open hand to work with Americans of both parties,” but delivered a barbed message aimed mostly at rousing only the members of his own.
The emotional heart of the speech concerned immigration, just as Congress faces a new deadline that has linked the issue to extension of government funding needed to keep government open past Feb. 8. He advocated his plan to curb legal as well as illegal immigration by emphasizing the deadly menace of immigrant gang members, directing the nation’s attention to bereaved families of young people murdered by members of MS-13.
The dark picture the president painted diverged sharply from research showing that immigrants actually commit crime at lower rates than native-born Americans. The emotions he played on make it harder for Democrats to reach an immigration agreement with him.
He mischaracterized the “chain migration” policies he hopes to curtail, falsely asserting that they bring in “unlimited numbers” of distant relatives. He pitted the interests of immigrant “Dreamers” against the “forgotten” blue-collar whites he championed in his campaign. “Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said.
That was only one issue on which Trump baited Democrats he said he wanted to cooperate with. While hailing the service of America’s veterans, he invoked the national anthem as a way to reiterate his criticism of black pro football players who have knelt before games to protest racial injustice.
He boasted of good economic news as if it began with his election rather than extended trends he inherited from his Democratic predecessor. Stock prices rose sharply under President Obama, too; growth in jobs and wages has actually slowed or stayed flat under the Trump administration.
He drew a standing ovation by bragging that last month’s tax bill repealed the “disastrous” individual mandate under Obamacare. He joined fellow Republicans in applauding himself — as he did repeatedly through the address — after delivering the line.
Other lines in the speech struck hollow notes. He touted his support for police as he and his supporters assail the FBI, Justice Department and special counsel that are investigating his campaign.
He vowed to bring down prescription drug prices and curb the deadly opioid epidemic, just as he did in last year’s address to Congress. He hasn’t offered detailed plans to take on either challenge since taking office, and didn’t tonight.
He pledged to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, an aspiration with bipartisan support. But his administration has signaled it will propose just $200 billion over 10 years in federal funding, relying on private sector money for the rest.
Democrats believe addressing the problem requires far more. Republicans oppose large-scale outlays on infrastructure — just as they oppose large-scale outlays for the job-training, vocational education and child care services Trump touted tonight.
The practical obstacle to reaching compromise on those issues is the budget deficit increase produced by the tax cut. The ideological one is opposition of Republican congressional leaders, if not the president himself, to a larger role for government. Most Americans want the government to do more to help average families.
A final problem in finding significance to Trump’s speech stems from his own mercurial conduct — in saying things that are not true, in abruptly reversing himself on policy, in praising congressional leaders of both parties one moment and ripping them on Twitter the next. The president who delivered this State of the Union address is someone for whom words have little meaning, weight or durability.