Trump’s State of the Balcony Address

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address on Tuesday to sell his policy of negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan. That made sense: He gave a higher profile to an issue that hasn’t received a lot of media attention, which pressured Congress, including Republicans, to get behind a policy they might not want to support. 

Unfortunately, that’s about it for the positive. Like last year, Trump’s speech was far more focused on the folks in the gallery – some heroes, some victims – than on policies. If you blinked, you missed infrastructure, which once again seems to be an idea he talks about, not something he plans to enact. He engaged in some soaring rhetoric about child cancer, putting the spotlight on a wonderful little girl in the gallery to illustrate the point … and then asked Congress for all of $500 million over the next 10 years to find a cure for the disease. 

And then there were the recycled ideas, including school choice and parental leave, that he mentioned last year, filed away for safekeeping, and pulled out again this time. 

On his biggest issue, the border wall, he just reran the same rhetoric that failed to convince anyone who didn’t already agree with him during the shutdown – without hinting about what he’s going to do if he doesn’t get what he wants from Congress. 

The parts of the State of the Union that matter happen to also be those that ruin it as a speech, reducing it to a laundry list of proposals. So I’d grade any State of the Union on a very generous curve when it comes to effectiveness as rhetoric, remembering that even a very good presidential speech almost never moves public opinion. 

And this one wasn’t good.

Trump is probably at his best when he’s riffing on familiar material, as he does at his rallies, and when he’s in sync with his audience. Reading prepared stuff from a teleprompter is a skill he still hasn’t mastered, and he’s absolutely terrible at handling anything remotely soaring, unlike Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama. Nor is he good at policy detail, the way Bill Clinton was. Trump failed to find the natural flow of the text, often obliterating transitions. He sometimes managed to swallow the applause lines so badly that Republican members of Congress primed to cheer them waited a beat or two before reacting.

It didn’t help that the speech was framed as a bid for bipartisanship and comity, which isn’t exactly a natural sell for Trump. His initial plea for cooperation fell flat when he mentioned the “Democrat agenda” rather than the “Democratic” agenda, which injected a harsh partisan note that undermined the point he was trying to make. 

As usual in a Trump speech, there were whoppers. Plenty of fact-checks are out there, and you can read about his assertion of an record economic boom here at Bloomberg Opinion. Then there was his claim that “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.” But there was no push from Democrats (or Republicans) for any such war at any point during the last administration or from the candidates during the campaign. 

At any rate: most of that stuff doesn’t matter very much. What does matter is that it was another wasted opportunity from a president who has wasted plenty of them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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