President Donald Trump said a few of the right things and generally managed to restrain his tone in his lengthy State of the Union address. There were no real surprises Tuesday night, and while he dropped a few whoppers his call for bipartisan negotiation on immigration and infrastructure spending at least paid some lip service — if only for an evening — to finding common ground in Washington. The problem is this president spent his first year in office dividing the country and could not resist some of the familiar jabs in his speech. His actions over the next year, not a scripted address, will determine whether he can meet his own high expectations for the country.
Presidents use these addresses not only to fulfill a constitutional duty but to take a victory lap for claimed gains and to lay out their agendas for the coming year. In that sense, these are big opportunities to frame the national conversation on the major issues of the day. Trump focused much of his speech on the nation’s growing economy. While he mischaracterized the tax cut package he signed last year and the state of American manufacturing, Trump fairly pointed to a surge of corporate confidence, strong employment figures and stock market gains as encouraging signals. He also accurately pointed out the success of the military campaign to roll back the Islamic State militant group. While these trends began under his predecessor, Trump has continued them through the transition, advancing American prosperity and security.
But the president offered no new sweeping initiatives or a plan for breaking through the partisan gridlock. Trump’s infrastructure proposal — now at $1.5 trillion, an increase of 50 percent virtually overnight — still has no details and continues to hinge heavily on private-sector investment.
He floated no strategy to confront the opioid crisis beyond getting tougher with "drug dealers and pushers." And he broke no new ground on immigration; Trump instead irritated Democrats by taking a thinly veiled swing at the so-called "Dreamers," young people brought illegally to the United States as children. "Americans are dreamers, too," Trump said amid an extended warning about "gang members" and "criminals" who "break into our country." He also was silent on the two major developments that have gripped the country — the investigations into Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections and the #MeToo campaign highlighting sexual harassment. Given his personal conflicts, this president cannot credibly speak on the nation’s biggest issues.
It remains to be seen how such a divisive leader can enlist "all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve." The president has vilified Democrats for the past year as obstructionists, even as he refuses to negotiate with them in good faith. The demands he made in return for protecting Dreamers are skewed and unrealistic. Fellow Republicans are even often unsure where he stands. On Wednesday, only hours after appealing for a new spirit in Washington, with "all of us together, as one team," the president moved to release a Republican congressional report on the Russia investigation that Democrats blasted as inaccurate and biased and that Trump’s own FBI pushed to block, citing the bureau’s "grave concerns" about its accuracy.
The president will need to repair his own credibility for Republicans and Democrats in Congress to have any hope of working together, and Trump is correct that immigration and infrastructure present two such opportunities. But talk is cheap and infrastructure is expensive. Seriousness of purpose, a focus on facts and a willingness to compromise will determine if actions will speak louder than words.