The State of the Union Was Political Malpractice

Trump could have used the address to improve his low approval ratings—but he only dug deeper.

Donald Trump gives the State of the Union address in 2019.

About the author: Rahm Emanuel was the 44th mayor of Chicago. He previously served as President Obama’s chief of staff and as chairman of both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Democratic Caucus.

The State of the Union address was a golden opportunity for President Donald Trump to reset his presidency, create a blueprint for the next two years of his administration, and launch his uphill battle for reelection. He failed on all fronts.

The president’s approval ratings hover around 40 percent, a shockingly low number, given the robust health of the economy. The only other recent presidents whose approval ratings reached such lows were President Ronald Reagan, in the midst of a recession, and President George W. Bush, during the worst years of the Iraq War.

These presidents and others used their State of the Union addresses to correct their course, articulate audacious agendas, and sell the public on the victories they had achieved and the wins they saw coming over the horizon.

Trump could have followed this well-worn path. Previous Republican presidents, such as Reagan and Bush, used these speeches to buoy sagging poll numbers; Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used them to lay the groundwork for progress, after midterm defeats in 1994 and 2010, respectively, left them facing a divided government.

Instead, Trump just kept deepening the hole he has dug for himself and his party, doubling down on hard-line demands for a wall that the country doesn’t want and that congressional Democrats will never fund. What did he learn from his first government shutdown that he thinks will change a second time around?

The president also used the speech to make calls for bipartisanship and unity that sounded neither sincere nor authentic. For three years, Trump has shown himself to be a divider, not a uniter; a partisan and not bipartisan.

If the president and his advisers were thinking strategically, they would have first looked to the past to guide them. There are three areas in the next six months that could help redefine the Trump presidency, make Trump look like a commander in chief, and give him a shot at reelection in 2020.

First—through no effort of his own—Trump is in a position to end the longest sustained combat mission in American history: the war in Afghanistan. Many Americans—Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike—would be happy if the president brought the war to an end with a responsible agreement that brings our troops home. My views on Trump are well known, but I also know that achieving a settlement in Afghanistan ain’t beanbag.

Second, Trump may get a breakthrough agreement with China on trade. If he is successful, the president will be able to say he pulled it off because he was willing to go to the brink with China. That’s another area where Americans across the political spectrum could applaud him, because they will benefit from his efforts.

Third, the president has rallied European, North American, and South American countries in opposition to an autocratic failed government in Venezuela. Helping to end a dictatorship in Venezuela would be the first sign that Trump can be a multilateral president who builds coalitions and consensus overseas to achieve strategic goals.

Those achievements, if they happen, aren’t nearly enough to get Trump out of the hole he and his party find themselves in, let alone reelect him. But it’s political malpractice for the president’s State of the Union address not to give more than a fleeting reference to what little he has to work with.

Trump devoted a mere 140 words to Afghanistan, 118 to trade with China, and 62 to Venezuela. By contrast, he devoted 463 words to immigration and 180 to the wall—a total of 643 words on a subject where he is bound to lose. Think about that. Trump spent twice as much time trying to coax a political lead balloon into flight than highlighting these three promising areas.

Similarly, the president lip-synched political pablum about bipartisanship and unity that no one buys from him. Being willing to support objectives that garner bipartisan support is what it actually means to be bipartisan. Feigning bipartisanship with an obvious head fake is a good way to get legislators in the chamber to groan while Americans at home hit the mute button and head to the fridge.

Using the past as a guide, Trump could have set the stage for future wins, reset his presidency heading into reelection, and proved he has grown and matured in office. Instead, at the State of the Union, he came up short as he has done time and again throughout his presidency. He has one more shot to get the speech right, in 2020. I’m not holding my breath.