For more than an hour Tuesday night, Presidential Donald Trump vied with pugnacious Trump.
The White House had promised a conciliatory and uplifting State of the Union speech, which stood to reason. It’s one thing to inveigh against the mess Trump said he inherited a year ago and another to laud the job he claims to have done cleaning it up.
Gone, then, was the wreckage, the ruin and the dystopian “American carnage” he deplored in the glowering speech at his inauguration. Instead, Trump offered a vision of hopefulness and light – for a time, anyway.
“This is our new American moment,” he said loftily in the early moments of his address. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”
But those grace notes were soon overshadowed by an increasingly harsh tone, as though the president couldn’t or didn’t care to contain his more ad-libbed and aggressive self.
He needled Democrats over the partial dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, one of his predecessor’s proudest achievements. He resurrected the controversy over the national anthem and the dissent of kneeling black athletes.
When he spoke of immigration, perhaps the touchiest issue facing a gridlocked Congress, he placed it in a dark frame, with talk of gang violence, of alien intruders stealing jobs and a suggestion of unending “chain” migrants – aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members – leaching taxpayer dollars.
In his closest approximation to an olive branch, Trump said he would support a proposal offering a path to citizenship for 1.8 million children – so-called “Dreamers” – who were brought to America illegally by their parents. But only, he said, if Democrats would agree to a border wall and other changes in legal immigration they consider anathema.
The result was groans and hisses and boos from that side of the House chamber.
The annual speech to Congress is one of Washington’s most carefully choreographed set pieces, and for portions of it Trump hewed closely to a familiar script.
He assayed the state of the union, pronouncing it “strong.” He outlined an ambitious agenda – which lawmakers will mostly ignore – crowed about his achievements, made a feint in the direction of bipartisanship and saluted a large number of invited guests who served as props representing different bullet points (immigration, a strong military, the opioid addiction crisis) of his speech.
It was all terribly conventional, but only to a point.
There were many long sections that could just have easily been delivered at one of Trump’s roisterous “Make America Great Again” campaign rallies, down to the moment when the ranks of Republican lawmakers broke into a lusty chant of “USA! USA!” as the president, chin out, approvingly took in the scene.
The contrast to the previous time Trump stood in the well of the House was striking.
Eleven months ago, he delivered a more subdued performance, earning plaudits and generating widespread talk of a presidential turning point or, in that most overused expression, a pivot toward a more staid and conformist style of governance.
Then, days later, Trump was back to tweeting about a “bad (or sick)” President Barack Obama bugging Trump Tower, a figment that roused his political base but instantly banished any Democratic goodwill or notions of presidential normalcy.
Trump has shattered political convention in so many ways that it is difficult to enumerate them all. One of the most significant is this: Although the economy is perking smartly along and Americans tell pollsters they feel better about their financial well-being than they have in years, the president has gotten very little credit.
Indeed, his approval rating stands at a historical low for a chief executive this early in his term, severing the long-standing correlation between economic good times and voter satisfaction.
His speech Tuesday night, with its prime-time prominence and audience reaching in the tens of millions, offered a chance to address that problem. “Over the last year, we have made incredible progress and achieved extraordinary success,” Trump said, reeling off a number of favorable economic statistics.
But much of the address seemed aimed at a far narrower audience.
To a greater degree than any recent president, Trump has used his time in office to appease the relatively narrow slice of the electorate – older, whiter, alienated, aggrieved – that placed him in power, opting not to reach out, bend and seek to broaden that coalition.
His uncompromising performance Tuesday night perfectly encapsulated that approach. Supporters found much to like and detractors plenty to reinforce their contempt.
It is too much to expect any single speech, much less one as politically freighted as the State of the Union, to instantly bridge such a yawning gap. If anything, though, Trump’s provocative remarks seemed likely to push warring Democrats and Republicans even further apart.
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