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.”
But it was not merely Trump’s sulky manners that doomed Option 1. Successful State of the Union speeches are backed by considered plans of action. If a president talks about infrastructure modernization, it’s because he and his party have an infrastructure bill ready to go. The dysfunctional Trump administration does not; infrastructure is a term the president utters without ever much meaning anything by it.
All of Trump’s instincts and habits drive him to Option 2—on steroids. The 2019 State of the Union doubled down on trade wars and border walls, on ally baiting and America preening. Unfortunately for Trump, Option 2 makes sense only when you command a potential majority coalition, as Reagan and Obama did. When you don’t, as Trump does not, the highly divisive politics that rally your base simultaneously rally your opponents’ bigger base.
By talking so fiercely about abortion, Trump has hugely raised the stakes for his judicial nominations, including the pending nomination of Neomi Rao for the D.C. circuit. Trump’s accusatory language about border walls seems intended to make impossible any kind of agreement on border security.
Meanwhile, Trump’s most indispensable supporters—the Republican senators—looked unconvinced and displeased through the speech’s more pitchfork-waving passages. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has little interest in fighting pharma or launching another round of tariffs against China and Mexico.
Back during the campaign, Trump defenders excused their man’s acknowledged faults by recycling a compliment that President Abraham Lincoln paid General Ulysses S. Grant: “He fights.” But Grant planned his fights. He counted his troops and those of the adversary, reconnoitered the ground, brought up supplies, devised a plan; he didn’t just plunge headfirst against a wall in a spasm of ill temper. Trump doesn’t do any of those things. That’s why this president who talks so much about winning is suddenly losing on almost every political front.