The State of the Union address is typically when a president of the United States outlines the direction in which he thinks the country should go and what he expects Congress to do about it in the coming year. It’s also an opportunity for the president to highlight his accomplishments over the previous 12 months, and in modern times it serves as a generic coming-to-Jesus moment for a divided nation suffering from a gridlocked political system. President Bill Clinton called for unity a month after he was impeached by the House of Representatives; President George W. Bush did the same when dozens of U.S. troops were being killed every month in Iraq; and President Barack Obama tried to inject a feeling of national healing after numerous school shootings.
Donald Trump, the most unconventional of politicians, delivered a conventional State of the Union speech on Tuesday with those very same goals in mind. “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences,” Trump told the House chamber, “to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
His remarks were full of the inspirational rhetoric that Americans expect from their president. There was the heroic story of Army Staff Sergeant Justin Peck, who ran into an booby-trapped building in Raqqa to save a fellow soldier from succumbing to his wounds. There was a call to unite behind Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens, four parents whose children were lost to gang violence in Long Island. And Trump was sure to tout his tax cut efforts by talking about the experiences of Steve Staub and Sandy Keplinger of Staub Manufacturing, a small business that now has enough money to hire more employees thanks to savings from lower tax rates. The three personal stories, of course, were meant to segue towards three policies the Trump administration is either hoping to promote or push for during this incredibly partisan midterm election year: tax cuts, immigration reform, and the elimination of the defense sequester.
If Trump was trying to offer a few olive branches to the Democratic Party, it’s unlikely the speech worked. Senior Democratic lawmakers looked perturbed, disturbed, bored, and disgusted by much of what Trump said. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi chewed on her lip, while her deputy Steny Hoyer looked like he didn’t even want to be there. Senator Cory Booker, a prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, sat stone-faced through much of the address. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who got ripped apart by fellow Democrats for agreeing to reopen the federal government in exchange for a Republican pledge to hold an immigration vote, muttered to Senator Patty Murray on numerous occasions. There were groans when Trump essentially equated the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with the MS-13 gang, as if all Latinos coming from Central America were killers-in-training. Trump sought to sell a “New American Moment” full of opportunity and prosperity for everyone who has the smarts, the work ethic, and the creativity to capitalize on it. To Democrats, that’s a corny slogan for policies they are unwilling to sign up for.
As for congressional Republicans, Trump need not worry. On issues from immigration enforcement, infrastructure investment, the defense budget, and implementing a tough approach on North Korea, the GOP will largely stick by their president throughout the year. Assuming he doesn’t say or do anything stupid, cause another racial controversy, or get himself charged with obstruction of justice by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump’s national priorities will be the Republican Party’s national priorities.
The question, however, is whether any of Trump’s policy proposals will go anywhere. It’s one thing to use the State of the Union as a vessel to introduce policy, but it’s another thing entirely to get those proposals through the legislative branch. Senate Democrats have already expressed opposition to Trump’s immigration blueprint, which essentially trades the legalization of 1.8 million Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients for a cut in legal immigration, more authority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and a $25 billion infusion for a wall on the southern border. If he cannot keep the Senate Republican conference unified and peel away at least nine Democrats for his plan, Trump’s vision of immigration reform will die in the Senate chamber.
While a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package would be something Republicans and Democrats can both support, this, too, may not see the light of day. Assuming Trump is serious about putting pressure on members of Congress to vote for an infrastructure bill, disputes over how the money will be appropriated—and whether other parts of the budget will need to be cut in order to control the deficit—could doom the talks just as they have in the past.
Killing the defense sequester is well and good, but Trump doesn’t have the power to do it on his own. If he wants to send unlimited taxpayer dollars into the military’s coffers, he will need Congress to pass a law overriding the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). This, too, will be a very heavy lift; as reviled as the BCA is to members on both sides of the aisle, it’s the only statutory instrument that has forced Congress to make spending priorities rather than throw money at every problem as Washington usually does. Senate Democrats, who have leveraged the BCA as a way to increase spending on non-defense items like education, public health, and research, may not be ready to cash in their chips just yet—and as long as Chuck Schumer can maintain the unity of his caucus, the sequester will continue to be the law of the land whether Trump likes it or not.
Overall, Donald Trump delivered a speech that was good enough. His remarks were far more conciliatory than usual, but still infused with enough nationalism that his political base will be pleased. He kept his eyes trained on the teleprompter and the improvisation to a minimum.
But in politics, it often takes two to tango. For Democrats, it’s highly unlikely that even a full-on political conversion by Trump himself would persuade the party to cooperate in an election year projected to be terrible for the president and even worse for Republican lawmakers.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.