It’s become fashionable to pine for the days, long ago, when the State of the Union was a letter the president sent to the Congress each year rather than the spectacle it has become. Basically, two types of people make these calls: partisans who resent the rhetorical opportunity the occasion provides the president, and policy wonks who lament the lack of actionable specifics in these speeches. Both complaints are the reason presidents may never stop indulging in the spectacle.
I’m as policy-oriented as anyone, but credit where credit is due: The State of the Union is a matter of political theater, and no one displays an understanding of that more than Donald Trump.
His performance Tuesday was impressive for its command of stagecraft and narrative. Fact-checkers can check facts, but I’d hazard a guess the vast majority of viewers went away with a broadly true message about how the economy is humming, how Trump is remaking American foreign and trade policy in his “America First” image, and how the long-running immigration debate is coming to a head.
More important is what the vast majority of viewers saw. Consider these two general groups of sights:
First, ordinary people who have done extraordinary things — which just so happen to align with some of Trump’s biggest priorities. There was the Albuquerque police officer who stopped a pregnant mother from shooting herself up with heroin and then, with his wife, adopted the child she was carrying. There were the families (note: racial and ethnic minority families) whose children were killed by members of the MS-13 gang that Trump has cited as a reason for cracking down on illegal immigration. Perhaps most powerfully, there was Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector, standing on his artificial leg and raising his crutch triumphantly over his head.
Second, they saw, repeatedly, Democrats sitting and often not even clapping during some portions of the speech that should have drawn bipartisan acclaim.
Viewers often saw sour looks from Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats as Trump touted new investments by companies due to tax reform, historically low unemployment among African-Americans, and even the early success of some Veterans Affairs reforms.
You don’t have to like Trump very much to recognize Democrats’ stone-faced expressions often didn’t come off as principled or resolute, but petty and churlish. And he didn’t have to take any verbal swipes at them for the message to come across.
Now, you also don’t have to dislike Trump very much to recognize he can be his own worst enemy at times. There’s a pretty good chance he will step on his own success fairly soon with some comment or other, though as of Wednesday mid-afternoon he’d stayed off Twitter after the speech.
If Trump can refrain from the temptation to thumb his way to controversy, however, that speech can be a good template for how he and the GOP should approach the rest of this election year: Tout economic successes, and highlight the broad and even non-traditional coalition of people who would be helped by their policies. The lack of Democratic alternatives besides “we’re not him” and “impeach!” means that might be enough.