President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last week was, according to the overnight polling, generally well received by the American public (or at least by those who watched). His acknowledgements of various individuals in the gallery were poignant and moving. He invoked proud, unifying achievements from the nation’s past, like the liberation of Dachau and the Moon landing. There were even moments of bipartisan celebration, as when Trump acknowledged the record-setting number of women serving in Congress. Most significantly, Trump mentioned several legislative initiatives that should have considerable appeal to Democrats, and that could provide the basis for bipartisan action (vanishingly rare in today’s Washington). At the same time, however, Trump rhetorically threw down the gauntlet in several major areas, foreshadowing conflict ahead and perhaps previewing some of the themes of his re-election campaign. In that sense, it was a schizophrenic speech, offering an olive branch with one hand and a clenched fist with the other. Which of those becomes the dominant motif will largely determine the tenor of American politics over the next two years.
From a policy standpoint, there was much for Democrats to like in Trump’s address. After a call to work together not as partisans, but as Americans (an admittedly common, but rarely followed, exhortation in American politics), Trump proceeded to propose action in a variety of areas historically championed by Democrats. He highlighted the need to invest in infrastructure, shoring up the nation’s network of roads, tunnels, and bridges. He called for bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, advocated action to combat opioid abuse, and proposed a national effort to eradicate AIDS. More importantly, he went beyond these relatively innocuous proposals with two suggestions that many in his own party have resisted in the past—universal paid family leave (a pet issue of his daughter Ivanka) and the expansion of legal immigration, an off-script proposal sure to raise eyebrows among his nativist base. Of course, these initiatives lack details, and it remains to be seen how and when Trump will translate them into concrete legislative proposals. Clearly, however, the speech highlighted multiple areas of potential action across party lines, if both sides are genuinely interested.
At the same time, President Trump used the speech to draw sharp distinctions between himself and Democrats in several major areas, previewing battle lines both for the coming year and for the campaign season of 2020. To begin, he presented a stark choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives: “peace and legislation, or war and investigation.” Trump is increasingly frustrated by what he sees as endless and unbounded inquiries into his campaign’s alleged “collusion” with Russia, his personal finances, and other topics, and these investigations only promise to expand with the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. Cooperative action on bipartisan legislative priorities, he seemed to suggest, can only occur if Democrats drop their fixation with hounding him from office. As Democrats are unlikely to back off on the investigative front—their base would simply not permit it, and they seem genuinely convinced that the president is guilty of substantial wrongdoing—this framing suggests that bipartisanship in the new Congress may be stillborn. Instead, Trump may be setting up Democrats’ interest in “witch hunts” over actual governing as a campaign issue in 2020.
In addition, Trump’s speech laid down markers on two key issues that are uncomfortable for Democrats, because they divide the party’s center-left contingent from its more radical wing. One such question is late-term abortion, which Trump denounced in the face of Democratic efforts in several states to ease or eliminate restrictions on the practice. While the American public is ambivalent about the abortion issue generally, there is a strong majority against third-trimester abortion; knowing this, Trump seized the popular (and, in his view, moral) high ground on the issue. More broadly, Trump took the opportunity to declare emphatically that “America will never be a socialist country.” As recently as ten years ago, this would have been a bland, bipartisan applause line, akin to asserting one’s opposition to Nazism or breast cancer. Now, however, it splits the Democratic Party between its establishment wing (like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who stood and applauded) and its leftist insurgents (like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who did not). This rhetorical move by the President clearly suggests that he will seek to cast Democratic proposals as radical, dangerous leftward lurches, and that he is eager to position himself as the only thing standing between America and a descent into Venezuela-style economic disaster.
Finally, of course, there is the issue of immigration. This is simultaneously the area where compromise between Trump and the Democrats will be most difficult, and where it is most necessary — particularly with a second government shutdown looming over the controversy surrounding Trump’s proposed border wall. In the speech, Trump doubled down on his assertion that illegal immigration across the nation’s southern border constitutes a national security crisis, and once again demanded funding for a significantly enlarged physical barrier. So far, he has been unable to convince a majority of the American public that the situation is as dire as he claims, or that “the wall” is the best solution to the problem that does exist. Democrats are deeply dug in on the issue, and do not want to be perceived as having given in to the president on this signature issue of his. A compromise may come in the form of modest funding for increased physical barriers (which Trump will call a “wall” and Democrats will not), along with additional border patrol agents (which Trump has begun to characterize as a “human wall,” perhaps hinting at a rhetorical strategy for claiming dubious victory on the issue). In any case, the clock is ticking; February 15th is the deadline for reaching agreement on this issue. It will be the first real test of whether there is any real interest in bipartisan compromise, or whether we can anticipate conflict and stalemate as far as the eye can see.