As President Donald Trump delivered his second State of the Union address from behind the lectern in the gilded chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, a clock on the wall over his head moved slowly, but steadily, marking the minutes and seconds remaining on his term in office.
Trump’s administration suffered a grievous wound last November in the form of the midterm election that sent dozens of new and diverse Democrats to the House, effectively shifting the balance of power and restoring the speakership to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). In many ways, the 2018 midterm elections ended the Trump administration; Tuesday’s State of the Union served as its valediction.
Of course, an anxious nation is watching over the Trump administration’s still-beating heart until the clock finally winds down. By law, if not by reason or sanity, Trump remains in office and is therefore Constitutionally obligated to report annually to Congress on the state of the nation. And so he did.
The president spoke to the nation for an hour and 25 minutes. At times, he repeated some of the same campaign promises that only his never-say-die supporters still believe are possible. But during lengthy portions of the speech, Trump attempted never-before-seen shifts in tone, calling for a renewed spirit of Congressional cooperation.
“[W]e must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good,” Trump said. “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.”
But Trump has proven to be the main obstacle to “choosing greatness.” Given the tumult Trump has wrought in the 746 days between his inauguration and Tuesday night’s speech, his call for unity rings hollow against a constant refrain of divisiveness, racism, and insult — more often that not tossed off idly over Twitter. In fact, Trump began his morning with harsh words for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Come the evening, the New York Times reported that he’d spent part of an off-the-record lunch with television news anchors offering up lusty insults toward his political opposition, thus bookending the day before this supposedly conciliatory speech by undermining the words of comity that were to come later.
I see Schumer is already criticizing my State of the Union speech, even though he hasn’t seen it yet. He’s just upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would. Too bad we weren’t given more credit for the Senate win by the media!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 5, 2019
“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda,” Trump said at the outset of his speech. “It is the agenda of the American people.” Even that opening sentence — it’s Democratic agenda — betrayed his efforts toward unity.
Minutes later, Trump added: “Over the last two years, my administration has moved with urgency and historic speed to confront problems neglected by leaders of both parties over many decades.”
But such talk is at odds with his actions during his time in the White House. There were few words Trump could have credibly uttered that would have redirected, let alone reversed, the negative tilt and tenor of his administration or heal the rifts he’s deliberately created. It’s too late for that now.
For all of the president’s verbosity, the facts are stark. Little to nothing of what he wants, in terms of domestic policy is likely to become reality. Congress remains hopelessly gridlocked. Trump’s unpopularity has ruined any political capital he could use to persuade those who aren’t already fully on board with his agenda to join up now. He faces wide public disapproval, reflected in a constant stream of polling. And the past two years has demonstrated that the president not only lacks both the suitable temperament and the political skill necessary to bridge the yawning differences in Washington, but that he, in all likelihood, doesn’t actually want to change or grow into the type of leader needed to accomplish such a lofty goal.
Worse, as the 2020 race for Democratic presidential nomination ramps up over the next year, Trump will fade as the biggest political story. He’ll enter this two-year stretch fighting to not be seen as a lame-duck — with even more “executive time” on his hands.
Even before the State of the Union address, leading GOP strategists cast doubt on the idea that Trump could possibly bring the nation together. Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a frequent Trump critic, told USA Today that Trump has lost influence in Congress and that Pelosi holds the upper hand in setting Washington’s agenda.
“The concern is a wounded president tested by a newly minted speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi,” Steele said. “Folks are not very excited about the potential of what could come from the president standing before the nation, sort of drawing some bromides and egging on the Democrats.”
Trump’s signature campaign promise — building a sea-to-sea, concrete wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — is unlikely to be erected. The wall is all the more unlikely after a bruising 35-day federal shutdown failed to pry loose the $5 billion Trump demanded for its construction and drove his popularity to the lowest level of his presidency, according to The Associated Press.
Political reality, never Trump’s strong suit, didn’t stop him from issuing Congressional leaders a series of blustering demands on Tuesday night to give in and hand him that cursed wall. While Trump wisely opted against issuing a declaration of a national emergency, which he has recently threatened to do as an end run around Congress’ refusal to furnish the necessary funding to build the wall, he did repeat the dubious claim that such a crisis exists along the border.
Even his fellow Republicans are leery of supporting this last-ditch option to get his wall built. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sat grim-faced through the State of the Union, has warned Trump that he risks being overruled by Congress, if he goes through with the bogus claim that the border represents a national emergency.
“Now, Republicans and Democrats must join forces again to confront an urgent national crisis,” Trump insisted. “This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall…Simply put, walls work and walls save lives. So let’s work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make American safe.”
Elsewhere, Trump gave himself high marks on the economy, a dubious argument to make as the five-week government shutdown both hurt the pocketbooks of federal workers as well as costing the larger U.S. economy an estimated $11 billion — including some $3 billion that will never be recovered, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
I have to pay $2000 MORE in taxes this year! What happened?? I voted for you and thought you were fixing this, not making it worse!? I thought I would get money back this year!?
— Iamnewatthis (@sandynewtothis) February 1, 2019
And even erstwhile Trump supporters aren’t overjoyed with the economy. RawStory found growing dissatisfaction among the GOP faithful with the 2017 tax cut, which heavily favored corporations and extremely wealthy people, not middle-class Republican voters.
As RawStory reported:
Even though the 2017 GOP tax cut is leading to spiking federal deficits thanks to its generous benefits to corporations, many middle-class Americans are winding up having to pay more because the bill eliminated multiple deductions used by middle-class families to lower their annual tax payments.
Among other things, the tax bill capped deductions for taxes paid to state and local governments, while massively increasing the amount of money you must donate to qualify for a charitable giving deduction.
Unlike his previous State of the Union, Trump couldn’t play to a GOP majority. This time around, Pelosi sat mostly unsmiling in the Speaker’s chair during Trump’s remarks, signaling to her Democratic colleague when to stand and applaud, as the president prattled on and on.
As he spoke, Trump looked out into an audience of Democrats — including Senators Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — who have declared their intentions to take his job. And within those ranks were others pondering the same move, including Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. For the first time, the president had to face those who are champing at the bit to hit the hustings to mount a challenge to his political career.
For Trump, this speech came a week late. Here, too, was another symbol of his weakened status, having capitulated to Pelosi when she made ending the government shutdown a pre-requisite of being invited into the chamber to deliver the address.
After the speech ended, shortly before 10:30 p.m., Trump returned to his motorcade for the journey back up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. But the arms on that clock in the House chamber continued their circumlocutions, ticking down those 714 days — fewer days ahead than have already passed — potentially remaining in his term. At the very moment Trump had hoped to reset his presidency, his time has already run out.