President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address had been billed as a reboot after his turmoil-ridden first year in office. But his performance in the coming months, more than a single speech on a Tuesday night in January, will determine whether the restart is for real.
Trump has given Americans ample reason for skepticism, especially if his goal is national unity and the “new American moment” he described in his address. Just 11 months ago the Editorial Board largely praised Trump for striking a more optimistic tone in his joint address to Congress than he had in his “American carnage” inaugural speech.
We hoped the more forward-looking address signaled a shift not only in Trump’s message, but also in his behavior. “The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump told Congress that night — an idea he must have forgotten when, just a few days later, he tweeted that former President Barack Obama had tapped his phones during the campaign.
In subsequent months Trump would fire his FBI director, share classified information with Russian diplomats, withdraw from the Paris climate accord, oust his first chief of staff, praise the “very good people” who marched among white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and nickname North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” on Twitter. Meanwhile his former campaign manager was indicted, and his former national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Trump steered clear of those controversies Tuesday. Instead he touted the healthy economy, a record-setting stock market and tax reform that will lower taxes for a majority of Americans. Selling the broad benefits of that plan, which many see as mostly benefitting corporations and high-income households at the expense of growing deficits, is critically important for the president and congressional Republicans.
Working in their favor, at least until the nation’s bills come due, is that neither Trump nor most in his party seem remotely interested in fiscal conservatism. That means remaining GOP budget hawks may be outnumbered if they oppose the infrastructure spending the president desires, while Trump might be able to attract some Democratic support.
Although both pro- and anti-immigration hardliners have been quick to dismiss it, the president’s immigration plan also could find bipartisan backing. On Tuesday, Trump pledged to overhaul immigration policies to reflect “the best interests of American workers and American families” — a hopeful sign although it’s unclear if he sees the economic necessity of reform and recognizes the emerging worker shortage in Minnesota and elsewhere. And instead of focusing on immigrant success stories, he chose to exaggerate the dangers of open borders and gang violence.
Still looming over the White House, of course, is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Suspicion over Trump’s ties to that country only grew stronger this week with news that the State Department would not implement new sanctions that the president signed into law last year.
Under that cloud, Trump entered the second year of his presidency with approval ratings near 40 percent. His newest message of unity and call for bipartisan compromise are welcome, but we all know that Trump has an uncanny ability to careen off course with just one morning tweet.