WASHINGTON – A little humility goes a long way.
President Donald Trump really enjoys talking about himself, his grievances and how he’s never treated fairly. In his first State of the Union address, he showcased other people. As a result, his approval rating is likely to inch up in the coming days.
The businessman who likes to put his name on buildings and declared “I alone can fix it” during his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention spoke less in the first-person Tuesday than in any major address since he came down the escalator at Trump Tower three years ago to launch his campaign.
He used the word “we” 130 times, “our” 103 times and “us” 15 times. He mentioned “the people” nine times. He used the word “I” just 35 times and “my” 14 times. He went with the second person “you” 25 times, though that includes “thank you.”
Trump is a consummate showman, and his stagecraft was top notch. He played the pomp and circumstance to his advantage. The first reality television president seemed to be channeling Mike Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s image guru, by pointing to a bevy of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.
Reagan began this tradition by highlighting the heroism of Lenny Skutnik in his 1982 State of the Union. The federal employee had jumped into the icy Potomac to save a woman from drowning after a plane crash.
The official White House transcript shows that Trump was interrupted by applause 117 times in 80 minutes. The bulk of those came when the president was praising others: the cop from New Mexico and his wife who adopted the baby of a heroin addict, the victim of torture in North Korea who escaped to freedom and defiantly held up crutches he no longer needs, the Army staff sergeant who performed CPR for 20 minutes and artificial respiration for two-and-a-half-hours to save a comrade after an explosion in Iraq. He offered a touching tribute to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who recovered after being shot at congressional baseball practice.
He didn’t whine about “witch hunts,” or even elliptically refer to special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, and he made just one passing mention of Russia (it was critical).
The speech offered a window into what might have been, if he had stuck to script and shown more self-discipline during his first year. Trump’s approval rating could easily be 10 points higher right now if he just behaved the way he did last night, even while pursuing an identical agenda. The speech worried politically savvy Democrats because it suggested that he has upside potential.
But, but, but: No serious person in either party believes that last night represents a real pivot to becoming more “presidential.”
The White House went to great lengths to say that the State of the Union would be “unifying.” Sure enough, Trump nodded to bipartisanship. He even wore a blue tie. “I call upon 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,” he declared.
But we’ve seen this movie before. “The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump declared in his address to Congress last year.
Reacting to that speech, specifically his praise for a Navy SEAL who died in a raid that went wrong, liberal pundit Van Jones declared on CNN: “He became president of the United States in that moment, period.”
Just a few days later, Trump falsely accused Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower on Twitter. Jones has been mocked mercilessly since then. After watching the president spend the past year starting trivial fights, the commentator ripped into Trump last night on CNN for leaving the impression that many “dreamers” are gang members in his speech.
No one wants to be Lucy with the football in “Charlie Brown,” and the chattering class seems to have finally concluded that there will always be a Teleprompter Trump and a Twitter Trump. He will oscillate unpredictably and erratically between the two personas.
The president will perennially struggle to be a unifying figure because he is so personally divisive. It’s a feature, not a bug. Frankly, it’s part of his enduring appeal to the GOP base.
One of the people Trump gave a shout-out to last night was a 12-year-old from California who organized a campaign to put 40,000 flags on the graves of veterans. The little boy was adorable and proud. But Trump couldn’t help using his inspiring example to take a dig at black NFL players who have protested police brutality by taking a knee during the National Anthem. “Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us . . . why we proudly stand for the National Anthem,” Trump said.
Likewise, on immigration, Trump talked as if he was proposing a true compromise even as he outlined a hardline position that would require curbs in the number of legal immigrants and restrictions on what he calls “chain migration” in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for the “dreamers.”
“Americans are dreamers, too,” Trump said.
Conservatives loved it, and liberals groaned. It highlighted the extent to which Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects the “dreamers,” has split the country.
Consider this response from the former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan: “Thank you President Trump. Americans are ‘Dreamers’ too,” David Duke wrote on Twitter.
In a speech covered with the nationalistic fingerprints of domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, Trump went on to talk about, “All of us, together, as one team, one people and one American family.”
The Washington Post’s Editorial Board poses this rhetorical question in response, “Have a president’s words ever rung more hollow?”
“It was a campaign event – literally,” adds columnist Dana Milbank. “His campaign offered to display supporters’ names on the Official Donald J. Trump for President livestream of the address – if they contributed $35 or more. . . . Trump was still in the first minute of his speech – 72 words from the start – when he belted out his campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’ . . . It was the first of several cultural wedges Trump would drive through the chamber over the next hour – pitting immigrants against ‘Americans,’ trumpeting his support for the Second Amendment but no other, and reviving racially charged disputes he ignited over the past year.”
Trump has so poisoned the well that Democrats, except for red state senators who are in cycle, don’t even really want to work with him on the areas where he did extend olive branches, such as spending $1.5 trillion on infrastructure, creating paid family leave, cutting prescription drug prices and easing prisoner reentry into society.
A central theme of the speech was Trump’s ongoing bid to eviscerate the Obama legacy.
The president announced that, just before taking the stage, he had signed an order to rescind a directive from Obama to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He said he will keep the facility open indefinitely and may send new terrorism suspects there for the first time in a decade.
He also said he repealed the centerpiece of “disastrous Obamacare” and declared that “the era of economic surrender” is over.
On his way out of the chamber, Trump said “100 percent” when asked if the classified “memo” written by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., should be released. “Oh yeah, don’t worry,” the president told Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C.
Many professionals in the national security firmament worry that this partisan document, drafted by GOP staffers to challenge the integrity of the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election, could compromise sources and methods and further politicize the nation’s intelligence-gathering apparatus.
Every president since Reagan has worked to reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and dreamed of a world free from nuclear weapons. Not Trump. “Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are not there yet.” He proposed more spending to “modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal.”