Put aside the more laughable aspects of the State of the Union. Like the members who spend all day saving an aisle seat so they can get an autograph from, or picture with, a president they plan on panning later. Or that we still inexplicably drag Supreme Court justices and the joint chiefs to the legislative spectacle.
The State of the Union still serves a useful purpose. Not everyone eats and breathes politics 24/7. (God bless those people.) And once a year, we get a statement of a president’s agenda and priorities that can add much needed focus.
In 2003, President George W. Bush did just that, laying out his emergency plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR) which went on to be one of his greatest achievements, saving millions of lives.
Should we expect something similar from President Donald Trump on Tuesday, as he gives his first formal State of the Union address?
The short answer is, well, yes. He will likely perform well, list his priorities and may even offer some new wrinkles to the Republican legislative agenda. He will participate in the pomp and circumstance and it will feel as normal as having Donald Trump as president can feel.
But the State of the Union is not strong. It’s shaky and abnormal, even with a solid economy and the notable bits of progress that have been made elsewhere.
That’s because while he may give a normal-sounding speech, President Donald Trump has been anything but normal. His first year in office has been a glass half full, glass half full of rusty nails kinda year. His lack of moral leadership has perhaps been worse than expected. His propensity to say the wrong things and embrace the wrong people to supposedly appease his base has been tough to watch, like when he found the good in those marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville, VA.
In pursuit of delegitimizing the justice apparatus investigating his campaign, he has undermined the FBI, the DOJ, the intelligence community and congressional oversight. His use of Twitter captures the nation’s attention in the worst of ways and divides us before Fox and Friends gets to their third commercial break.
There will be an impulse to declare that Trump was “presidential” after his State of the Union speech occurs on Tuesday night. But we simply can’t ignore this record, even if it is obscured by political pageantry.
I say this as a Trump skeptic, yes. But one who is comfortable acknowledging that the president has had legislative success. Tax reform, while more cut and less reform than originally touted and ignoring the national debt at our collective peril, was ultimately a good thing. Vast deregulation has been welcomed by investors, employers and consumers.
And President Trump did roll back Obamacare’s individual mandate, although probably many months after another Republican would have and without any other necessary dismantling, reform or restructuring of the failing law. The mandate alone was like hitting a bunt off a tee stand with a Republican controlled House and Senate. But, hey, we got on first base!
And of course, there’s Gorsuch! Republicans have nominated and confirmed jurists that were the meal ticket for most squeamish Trump voters.
Trump will assuredly take a victory lap for all this on Tuesday. But it’s not a lap he deserves. Sure, he made noises and fired off tweets. But he spent the year mostly absent and indifferent to the legislative process. He didn’t lay out an agenda, barnstorm, build a coalition and negotiate any of his few legislative victories.
That’s not necessarily a knock. Maybe his way of staying an arm’s reach from governing is better. But if a bow is to be taken from the House floor, it should be by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for any legislative success of the past year.
If anything, Trump has caused more damage than he has provided help to the party he leads.
The president may clear the low bar set for him by successfully reading the words on the teleprompter on Tuesday. But whatever he says, it won’t negate that it’s been Congress that’s done the heavy lifting. And it certainly shouldn’t be enough for us to overlook the damage he causes to the institutions he is charged with leading and protecting.
A little normal is fine. A little normal is good. Time honored institutions like the State of the Union should be welcome these days, even if we crave less from Washington. But it doesn’t erase that for the rest of the year, we are living far from normal.
Rory Cooper is a former communications director to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, former White House advisor to President George W. Bush and currently a Managing Director at Purple Strategies.