Amid an impeachment effort meant to remove him from office and a re-election campaign meant to return him, President Donald Trump gave his third State of the Union Address Tuesday night.
The extraordinary circumstances were apparent in the setting. Over his left shoulder sat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who resisted impeachment until allegations demanded Congress do its constitutional duty. In front of him was his right flank: Republican lawmakers defending the president, including a House minority that voted unanimously not to impeach him, and a Senate majority expected to quickly acquit the president on Wednesday.
It was a night that laid bare the nation's deep partisan divide, with Trump not shaking Pelosi’s hand and the speaker ending the evening by ripping up her copy of the address.
And it was hardly the combination of ingredients for the compromise, or even comity, that’s needed for bipartisan action on key issues that are too pressing to await a presidential campaign, including work on lowering health care costs.
Like presidents preceding him, Trump appropriately declared the state of the union “stronger than ever before” — at least economically, if not politically. In particular, the record-low unemployment rate, especially for communities of color, is an accomplishment all should laud and look to build upon.
But in a speech touted by the White House as “the great American comeback,” the president overstated the strength of the ongoing recovery and ignored the cost of the country’s relatively tepid economic growth. Just last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that 2019 GDP growth was 2.3%, its slowest since 2016 in an era Trump described in his inaugural address as “American carnage.”
More troubling, the CBO reported that the annual budget deficit soared past $1 trillion, a figure that will increase to an average $1.3 trillion per year from 2021 to 2030. The Republican tax cut was a major contributor, and Trump is campaigning on a promise of even more cuts with no clear strategy for covering the lost revenue.
Alacrity over the deficit and other threats to America’s security, like climate change, should create bipartisan consensus, not the gridlock gripping Washington. But the president, who has called global warming a “hoax,” ignored it in his address just as he has in his administration. And while Trump is correct that the country must not take a “socialist” turn, capitalism’s enduring scourge of increasing inequality threatens the nation’s social fabric.
Rather than offering a vision for immigration reform that could fuel future economic growth, Trump continued to paint those not born in this country as a threat. Instead of searching for common ground on the Second Amendment, the president ignored the scourge of gun violence.
Security threats from nation-states and stateless actors alike are omnipresent, too, and while the commander in chief correctly credited the unrivaled U.S. armed forces, the soft power of diplomacy and alliances are more important than ever — something the president should prioritize even if he gave the issue short shrift in his speech.
Even beyond the military and economic might and rich alliances, America’s greatest advantage is its system of governance, which when done right is still an idea and ideal for the world — a truth Trump and Congress must ensure. Otherwise, the great American comeback is just a slogan, not a reality.