A message of unity from an agent of discord6 February 2019 | 14:59 | The New York Times
As he did last year, Mr. Trump showed up with a standard list of broad policy aims — many of them ambitious, some enjoying bipartisan support and few likely to go anywhere in this hyperpolarized climate. His vows to tackle the cost of prescription drugs, the raging opioid epidemic and America’s crumbling infrastructure could have been lifted straight from his 2018 State of the Union note cards. His call to fight childhood cancer was new, but the money he proposed for it — $500 million over 10 years — is hardly adequate to the task.
The president issued a paean to “unity” that could just as easily have come from a predecessor who might have meant it. Not that Mr. Trump avoided hot topics. He brought up abortion and Syria and a “tremendous onslaught” of migrants on the southern border. But the thematic heart of his address, as released and hyped in advance by the White House, sounded like the anodyne output of a random speech generator: “Together, we can break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future.”
Mr. Trump’s soothing message, in short, was wholly at odds with the acrid reality of how he has governed. In that way, the entire spectacle — reflected in the vibrating hostility between the two sides trapped together in the House chamber — evinced the true state of the union: fractured, fractious, painfully dysfunctional.
The State of the Union address is one of those moments that allows Mr. Trump to play the role of president, with pomp, standing ovations and, sweeter still, a captive audience of his opponents. Even Mr. Trump grasps that, for this one night, he is called upon to rise above partisanship and address the entire nation rather than merely his rump political base.
Beyond the general theme, he nonetheless failed this challenge.
The president, facing several investigations and a Democratic House determined to hold him to account, called for an end to “ridiculous partisan investigations.”
“If there is going to be peace and legislation,” the president said, “there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”
In the lead-up to his big night, the president’s tweets and remarks were designed to incite. He assailed Democratic leaders and repeatedly threatened to declare a national emergency if lawmakers didn’t provide billions for his border wall. In a preview session with network anchors, he called Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, a “nasty son of a bitch.”
Democrats responded with a set of guests intended to score political points. There were Dreamers and undocumented immigrants (some of whom formerly worked for Mr. Trump or a Trump resort), family members of victims of mass shootings, transgender service members, a #MeToo activist and a bevy of federal workers who went without pay during the shutdown.
Democratic women showed up by the dozens dressed all in white, a nod to the suffragists of the early 20th century, in a display of sisterly solidarity with all women.
Again and again in the speech, the president tried — for an evening at least — to change the tone he has set since the day he announced his candidacy with an attack on Mexican immigrants.
“We can make our communities safer, our families stronger, our culture richer,” Mr. Trump said early in his address. “But we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.”
If Mr. Trump’s words ring hollow, his actions still matter enormously. Given how bitterly divided the government is, how wounded and uneasy the nation is, it’s impossible not to cling to a hope that he might yet rise to the office and do something for his fellow Americans. But, rather than wait for that to happen, the wisest course for citizens interested in a stronger union is to focus on building it themselves.
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