Americans tuned in Tuesday night expecting to learn of the State of the Union, only to get a more telling picture of the State of the President. President Trump’s address to a Joint Session of Congress and the nation offered little new in the way of national programs. Instead, it provided valuable insight into the psyche and temperament of a leader shaken by an election that didn’t go his way and a government shutdown he couldn’t control.
For one hour and 23 minutes, Trump came across at times as hopeful for what can be accomplished by both parties and at times as defiant and unaccepting of the verdict rendered by voters in November handing the reins of the House to Democrats. Most pointedly, he did not do what Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did when they saw their parties lose the House. He did not offer any tribute to new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, despite members of his staff having urged him to make the gesture. (Trump did salute the fact that a record-setting number of women now serve in Congress—even though most of them were elected on strongly anti-Trump platforms.)
The speech had its touching moments, always coming with a spotlight on the special guests in the gallery. A child cancer patient. A Dachau survivor. Veterans of the D-Day invasion. A hero who saved lives at the Pittsburgh synagogue. The tone deadened, though, when he had to move from the poetry of honoring heroes to the prose of government programs. There was no hint of compromise on repealing Obamacare, pushing school choice, banning late-term abortions, or seeming to look forward to an arms race in which, he boasted, “we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”
On no issue was that clearer than his demand for a wall along the southern border. Warning of yet another caravan of asylum-seekers heading to the border, he declared that he had ordered 3,750 more troops there “to prepare for the tremendous onslaught.” That remark drew audible murmurs from Democrats. There was similar dissent when he warned that “year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.”
To a degree unknown in any modern State of the Union, the president presented himself at times more a victim than a leader. Most remarkably, that happened when members of Congress broke into singing “Happy Birthday” to a survivor of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting who was celebrating his 81st birthday. “They wouldn’t do that for me,” ad-libbed the president. He also sent that message of victimhood to all his supporters via one of first lady Melania Trump’s special guests. Though it was not included in the speech, the White House made sure to announce that Joshua Trump, a sixth grader from Wilmington, Delaware, was in the House Gallery. “Unfortunately, Joshua has been bullied in school due to his last name,” said a White House statement.
It was a reminder that this audience was something Trump rarely encounters. For the last year, almost all his speeches have been in counties he won in 2016 and in front of audiences wearing MAGA caps and waving adulatory signs. This was quite different, with a Democratic speaker seated behind him and Democrats outnumbering Republicans in the chamber. He didn’t need polls or staff to tell him many of his proposals were fated to die at their hands.
There also was no escaping the man who was not in the chamber—Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He clearly was on the president’s mind. Other presidents before him have faced similar tough times when delivering the State of the Union address. But those presidents handled the challenge differently.
The easiest comparisons are to Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999. When Nixon took to the rostrum on Jan. 30, he already was beset by investigations from the spreading Watergate scandal. In his speech, he chose to strike an optimistic tone on Vietnam, the Cold War, and energy. His only nod to the scandal came at the very end of the 5,200-word address, when he appended what he called “a personal word,” declaring that “one year of Watergate is enough” and pledging not to be driven from office.
Clinton faced two State of the Union addresses at most unfortunate times. In 1998, his Jan. 27 speech came the day after he declared, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” In 1999, his Jan. 19 address came in the middle of his impeachment trial in the Senate, just the day after his lawyers had begun presenting his defense. There were even questions about whether he would be invited to give the speech. But he was invited and, in both years, presented strong and optimistic speeches with humorous ad-libs. No one watching could have known this was a president fighting a battle to stay in office.
In contrast on Tuesday, everyone watching could see that this president is fighting to maintain his political equilibrium. He was only a few minutes into his remarks when he spoke of an American “economic miracle” and warned that “the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.” In case the point was missed, he added, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
He also pointedly warned—twice —against “resistance,” telling Democrats they “must choose between … results or resistance.”