No president in American history has been so deft at capturing public attention as Donald Trump, and yet, paradoxically, he has few tangible political achievements to show for it. In the State of the Union, the president will once more attempt to convert public attention, in the form of his most high-profile speech of the year, into political capital. But he’s likely to find that task harder than ever before.
The American people hardly need Trump, or anyone else, to tell them what the state of the union is: The union is a bit of a mess. It has just emerged from the longest government shutdown in history, with a reprise possible next week. It is polarized, angry, and, according to many Americans, on the wrong track. The economy is strong, at least, though there are some rumblings of trouble.
So Tuesday’s address will serve instead as a checkup on Trump himself—just as everything else in American politics seems to be these days. Trump’s omnipresence is inextricable from the chaotic state of the union. The speech comes at a pivotal time in Trump’s presidency. He has gotten his first taste of divided government and found it bitter. His legislative agenda seems moribund. Investigations by both Special Counsel Robert Mueller and House Democrats continue to dog him. And his 2020 reelection campaign will soon begin in earnest. State of the Union addresses seldom have much real impact, but this one should offer some indication of how Trump assesses his own position.