WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s presidency has transformed a Washington ceremony that had already been losing its luster in an era of gridlock and turned it into a political version of the NFL’s Pro Bowl: It’s not even the real game.
To be sure, the State of the Union speech had already declined in recent years to a symbolic exercise, little more than a list of wishes from the White House with little chance of passage in a hyperpartisan Washington.
But at Trump’s first State of the Union, the illusion of importance was heightened even further, creating a stylistic image of his presidency that is starkly different from the reality of his first year in office.
An American public that may have tuned in every now and again to past presidents is now saturated by Trump, from his early morning tweetstorms to his dominance on 24-hour cable networks. Whatever plan he presents in carefully prepared remarks at a podium are typically ripped up and tossed aside in the span it takes to craft a few tweets.
Teleprompter Trump, he has shown us again and again, is a far different persona from Twitter Trump.
When he’s at a podium, reading from prepared remarks he can seem measured and moderate, utterly conventional, and like a president who wants unity not division. That’s how he came across Tuesday night.
He spoke about a “New American Moment,” and sought to unify with talk of “all of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.”
“I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, and creed,” he said.
It was a tone that has been missing on most of the other 375 days since he was sworn in. And it largely overlooked just how tense the mood is, both in the House chamber (where more Democrats boycotted the speech than almost any other in history) and within the White House (Melania Trump, who has been even more unusually low-profile as of late, arrived separately from her husband).
Left unmentioned was the Russia investigation or the latest flap over a controversial Republican House memo with classified information that targets the FBI.
His calls for unity also rang a disjointed note, particularly in a chamber filled with politicians he’s derided as Cryin’ Chuck and Lyin’ Ted, Crazy Bernie and Pocahontas, Dicky Durbin and Sneaky Dianne Feinstein, Jeff Flakey and Liddle Bob Corker.
Trump’s actions soon after his major formal speech last year, the joint address to Congress on Feb. 28, illustrate why Washington officials and most Americans will meet his lofty rhetoric Tuesday with skepticism.
“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he said last year in his joint address to Congress.
Three days later he tweeted a photo of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and Vladimir Putin, calling for an investigation into their ties. The day after that, he accused Barack Obama of ordering Trump’s “wires tapped” in Trump Tower (“This is Nixon/Watergate,” he wrote. “Bad (or sick) guy!”).
If neither of those were trivial enough, he also had one more thing to say that Saturday morning: “Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show.”
State of the Union addresses in the past have been used to reflect on the past year and set priorities for the coming one.
During his speech on Tuesday night, Trump pushed for a $1.5 trillion infusion in infrastructure spending, although it is unclear how much of that would be government money.
“America is a nation of builders,” Trump said. “We built the Empire State Building in just one year — isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”
There were few signs of any breakthroughs on more immediate concerns. The government shut down last week, and it will run out of money next week unless the Republican-controlled Congress can win over some Democratic votes. The sides are likely to be at loggerheads over how to help so-called Dreamers, who were brought as children by the undocumented immigrant parents.
Trump said he would support an immigration proposal that would provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million children of undocumented immigrants. But he would only do so, he said, if Democrats support several other provisions that they have called untenable, such as funding for a wall along the US-Mexican border, ending the visa lottery, and prohibiting immigrants from bringing extended family members to the United States.
He claimed credit for a resurgent economy, which by just about every indictor has continued its improvement under his watch. He touted the Republican-passed tax reform package, a low unemployment rate, and rising investment accounts.
But while most presidents tend to benefit from such growth, his overall support among Americans remains at historic lows.
In only 12 states do a majority of residents approve of the job Trump is doing, according to a Gallup survey released on Tuesday. After his first year in office, Barack Obama had the majority of support in 41 states. Trump has averaged 38 percent approval rating during his first year, which is 10 points lower than any other first-year president ever surveyed by Gallup.
If anyone thinks Democrats are in a position to take advantage, consider this: There were no fewer than five separate Democratic responses to Trump’s address.
Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts gave the official response, while Senator Bernie Sanders spoke to progressives. Virginia Delegate Elizabeth Guzman spoke in Spanish. Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, spoke on BET, and former representative Donna Edwards spoke on behalf of the Working Families Party.
All of them were competing with an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC show by Stormy Daniels, a porn star who was reportedly paid $130,000 weeks before the 2016 election to sign a nondisclosure statement to not reveal a 2006 affair with Trump.
Kennedy delivered several pointed remarks aimed squarely at Trump.
“It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos. Partisanship. Politics. But it’s far bigger than that,” he said in Fall River. “This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”
“Bullies may land a punch,” he added. “They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.