The first failure: There’s still no coherent agenda.
The purpose of these joint-session speeches is not, actually, to reassure the president’s base that the leader of the country is mentally well. The purpose of the speeches is to mobilize support in Congress and the country for the president’s legislative plans. President George W. Bush’s 2001 address argued for his tax cut. Barack Obama’s in 2009 defended and advanced his recovery program.
Donald Trump omitted to do anything like that. On every one of the issues dividing House from Senate Republicans—tax reform, healthcare, immigration—Trump avoided so much as indicating a preference, let alone leading the way. His line about Israel-Palestine (“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like”) also seems to apply to the issues before Congress: You guys sort it out.
Health care? If Obamacare is repealed, millions of people will lose Medicaid coverage, including many Trump voters in states like Ohio and Kentucky. What does the president propose to do about that? His answer is contained in one single sentence: “We should give our great state governors the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out.”
Tax reform? Donald Trump endorsed “massive tax relief for the middle class.” No such relief is offered by the various plans circulating in House and Senate. House Speaker Paul Ryan in fact is touting a “border adjustment tax” that (while an elegant solution to inefficiencies created by the present corporate income tax) would have the side effect of increasing costs of everyday goods like clothing, shoes, and consumer electronics.
Immigration? Senators Cotton and Perdue have introduced in the Senate exactly the kind of immigration reform Trump supposedly favors. Its most important feature—lowering the absolute level of immigration—went undiscussed.
Infrastructure? Trump said he would soon ask Congress for a $1 trillion public-private program. How would it work? What would it do? Why should Americans support him? All went unargued.
As Paul Ryan told Today’s Matt Lauer on the morning of the speech, Trump acts more like a chairman than a president, assigning the real work of leadership to others. The trouble is, the system cannot work that way. Without presidential leadership, House and Senate Republicans cannot agree, laws will not pass, and entropy will win. The February 28 speech ominously indicated that leadership continues to be unforthcoming.
The second failure: There’s still no plan to build a majority coalition to support a Trump program.
Donald Trump’s fierce need for approval has disabled him from acknowledging the strategic fact of majority disapproval. Fifty-six percent disapproval is not an insurmountable obstacle. But how can a leader surmount a difficulty that he insists does not exist?