Trump’s Make-Believe State of the Union Speech

Fortified by a couple of glasses of wine, I watched last night’s State of the Union, and by the end thought it was not terrible. Compared to past State of the Unions, I’d give it a B-.

It had all the trappings of an SOTU, with some language about everybody working together etc., but it was about 80 percent directed at Republicans and Trump voters, who according to polls made up about 60 percent of the audience. So if you were one of those Trump voters, you were undoubtedly confirmed in the wisdom of your choice and made to think “why all the complaining? He said he wanted to work with the other side!”

Which he did, but about every 10th sentence was a wedge—conflating criminals with immigrants, praising “clean coal,” congratulating those who “stand at the Pledge of Allegiance,” etc. Indeed, with the exception of the immigration section, you can imagine this speech coming out of the mouth of president Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Chris Christie—that is, it was a standard issue contemporary GOP speech.

For a president just entering the second year of his administration, it was amazingly bereft of new ideas. The only forward-looking policy points I noticed were his immigration plan, which he explained with more clarity than he has before, and his infrastructure plan, which contained very little detail—and both of those are really agenda items from last year. He did have one line about paid family leave; it was a throwaway, but I expect it’s one that will haunt the GOP for the next 8 years. I was struck by how mild the applause from the Republicans was to his call for ending “chain migration,” otherwise known as “family reunification.” That suggests to me that when it comes to negotiations over immigration, GOP lawmakers won’t have his back on that one.

Most noteworthy—especially given the near-record length of the speech—was what was left out. He didn’t mention anything about the Russian investigation, which was no surprise to me. Nor did he say a word about Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. A bad night in that respect for Paul Ryan. Nor did he even nod at the recent government shutdown, the possibility of another one in a couple of weeks, and the general dysfunction in Congress. The silence with all of these elephants in the room issues was wise for him politically. But it gave the speech a feeling of make-believe.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.