It would be charitable to describe the 2019 State of the Union address as unfocused. President Donald Trump veered and skittered, sometimes yodeling blood-curdling calls to culture war, sometimes vaguely alluding to family leave and infrastructure modernization. He and his team could not decide what they wanted to do. Unsurprisingly, they did not do it.
A president who has suffered a bad defeat in a midterm election faces two obvious options, and a longer menu of subtler possibilities. One option is the approach Bill Clinton took in 1995: Adopt some of their themes as your own in the hope of winning back some of their supporters. “The era of big government is over,” said Clinton in 1995—and with those words, he put himself on the path to reelection in 1996.
Alternatively, a president can stay the course—as Ronald Reagan did in 1983 and Barack Obama in 2011. They gambled that they had suffered only temporary setbacks, that their coalitions retained their potential strength.
Before the speech, Trump’s briefers promised a big show of Option 1. Trump himself could not stomach it. He gracelessly opened his speech without waiting for newly elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pronounce the customary greeting about the “high honor and distinct privilege” of welcoming the president to the chamber. He spoke of unity as a duty incumbent only upon his opponents—cooperation as code for “Let me have my way.”