Trump's triumphant State of the Union speech
If President Trump could freeze time at the instant he completed his State of the Union address on Tuesday night and keep it there for the next nine months, he would likely win re-election in a landslide.
Any president running for a second term in a time of solid economic growth, with an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, and no new major wars being waged would enjoy a powerful tailwind. But Trump has often been his own worst enemy. His mendacious nastiness and obsessive focus on pummeling a long and always growing list of enemies, not to mention the frequent cruelty, ineptitude, and corruption of his administration, has kept his approval ratings consistently low and significantly underwater (with those disapproving of his performance usually outnumbering those favorably disposed to him by 10 percentage points or more).
But that has begun to change. As it did for former President Bill Clinton, the drive by members of the opposition party in the House of Representatives to impeach and remove him from office has come up short, backfiring at the level of public opinion. Trump delivered his address to Congress on the evening before the Senate is scheduled to vote for his acquittal, transforming him from a president under suspicion of serious wrongdoing into a man who beat the rap. (There's nothing Americans like better than someone who defies authority and comes out on top, transforming himself into a folk hero.) This all-but-certain outcome has already contributed to a spike in Trump's approval numbers. On Tuesday morning, a few hours before his speech and just a short time after he won the Iowa Republican caucuses with 97 percent of the vote, the president hit 49 percent in Gallup's job approval rating, his highest mark since taking office early in 2017.
The debacle in Iowa's Democratic caucuses on Monday night has yet to be measured in polls — but it, too, is likely to benefit Trump. His victory in 2016 was made possible by the slow-motion collapse in trust in America's public institutions over the past few decades, and his polarizing administration has made the problem far worse. Trump can thrive in that environment, but Democrats can't — because they long to use public institutions to improve the country. The fiasco on Monday night looks like a perfect storm of individual and institutional incompetence, technological fetishism, and elite racketeering. More than 24 hours after caucusing commenced, many of the uncertainties surrounding the vote remained unresolved as an air of conspiracy and suspicion clung to the event and its outcome. This is bad news for Democrats.
That was the context for Trump's State of the Union, and he did everything he needed to do to use it to his advantage. Most Democrats in the audience appeared to hate the speech, but they weren't the intended audience. Republicans and independents were, and I suspect they received it warmly.
As he has in prior appearances before Congress, Trump spoke slowly and methodically, relying on a teleprompter. Unlike his raucous and inflammatory rallies before his most fervent supporters, the tone was subdued and, frankly, as presidential as Trump can manage. For long stretches during the first half hour, it sounded like a slightly draggy and less charming version of Ronald Reagan's stump speech during his "Morning in America" re-election campaign in 1984. The "American carnage" Trump surveyed in his inaugural address three years ago has been replaced by a "blue-collar boom," yielding a "great American comeback."
The litany of facts and figures the president cited to prove his accomplishments were a mixed bag. Some were accurate, others were exaggerated, and some were outright deceptive or false. But given the undeniable strength of the economy, lots of voters are bound to do what they always do and give the president credit even when he doesn't deserve it. Unless the economy tanks quickly and sharply over the next six months, this will be a strong message to put before voters.
Things got uglier after that, with full-frontal, campaign-style attacks on Democrats for supporting such "socialist" programs as Medicare-for-all and health-care access for undocumented immigrants, with the latter coming in for considerable rhetorical abuse later in the speech, along with more jabs at Democrats for turning New York and San Francisco into sanctuary cities.
Other parts of the speech marked a shift in the by-now-tiresome-and-tedious ritual of singling out guests in the House gallery. For the past few decades, presidents of both parties have used them as political props, but on Tuesday Trump went further, repeatedly turning the State of the Union into a reality TV show. He announced a scholarship for an African-American girl from Philadelphia, orchestrated the reuniting of a military family, and bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Rush Limbaugh after announcing that the right-wing shock-jock is suffering from advanced lung cancer.
The speech felt interminable at times, with endless, obsequious standing ovations from Vice President Pence and the Republican side of the aisle. (Democrats from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on down had a hard time containing their disgust at much of it.) But it sounded like the speech of someone who knows how to run a country. That on top of the strong economy would probably be enough to make Trump a favorite to win a second term.
There's just one problem for the president — and hope for the Democrats: Trump is incapable of staying on message, restraining his impulses, taming his insecurities. Within days, and maybe just hours, he is bound to be back on Twitter, hurling insults and invective. Before you know it, he'll be back in front of a rally threatening his opponents with jail time and back to displaying evidence of rank corruption before all the world.
And that means that Trump will remain eminently beatable. If only the Democrats can get their act together.
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