After the State of the Union, Divisions Remain

In his first proper State of the Union Address, President Donald Trump set out to strike a more unifying tone. And in this, he was reasonably successful. But, one speech will not erase the depth of the country’s political divisions. Tough partisan battles still lie ahead.

“It is the people who are making America great again,” President Trump said as he wound down his address. The line provided a pretty good summation of a speech in which President Trump’s policies were explained through people.

Families of victims of MS-13 gang violence and law enforcement officers illustrated security concerns about illegal immigration. The parents of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after being detained in North Korea, and Ji Seong Ho, a North Korean defector who defiantly lifted his crutches into the air, personified the menace and the brutality of the regime in Pyongyang. The President’s economic policies were presented through the lens of a welder and small business owners who will benefit from the President’s tax cuts. The founder of the Cajun Navy, an organization that saved countless lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a wounded Marine, and a police officer from New Mexico that adopted the baby of an opioid addict were among a showcase of inspiring heroes Trump highlighted.

The tone Tuesday night was a striking departure from Trump’s 2016 speech at the Republican National Convention in which he declared, “I alone can fix it.” The shift reflects a reality that has been a defining struggle of Trump’s first year in office. For all the power of the Presidency, little of consequence can be accomplished alone.

The Partisan Divide Persists

Polite applause from Democrats Tuesday night should not be mistaken for the dawn of an era of good feelings. The country, and its capital, remain deeply polarized.

If the tone struck Tuesday night reflects a new leaf the President has turned over, it is a positive development for which the President can expect to be rewarded with rising approval ratings and accompanying political clout.

But, the State of the Union is a carefully stage-managed affair insulated from the rough and tumble day-to-day of partisan Washington. It’s one thing to join together to honor a firefighter who saved dozens of kids trapped at a summer camp. It’s quite another to strike a deal on immigration reform. Polite applause from Democrats Tuesday night should not be mistaken for the dawn of an era of good feelings. The country, and its capital, remain deeply polarized.

On Christmas 1914, the rifles and artillery of the First World War fell silent and Christmas carols were sung across the trenches between enemies in an inspiring moment of shared humanity. But, the truce was short-lived. The brutality of the war returned soon after. To the extent Trump’s State of the Union address inspired a bit of bipartisan comity, like the Christmas truce of 1914, it will prove a brief respite to Washington’s partisan trench warfare.

Zero-Sum Politics

The political realities of the Trump era leave little room for bipartisan common ground. Donald Trump’s rise to power was underpinned by the idea that Democrats and establishment Republicans who oppose Trump do so  because they are malevolently corrupt. As such, they are enemies to be vanquished, not negotiating partners. Among the Democratic Party base, Trump is a malignant threat to Democracy. Among liberals, there is no greater sin than to be seen as “normalizing” Trump. The result is a zero-sum game in which the only acceptable political outcome for either side is a defeat for the other.

With another government shutdown deadline looming next week, the pressure is on to resolve the impasse over immigration. Trump’s State of the Union was carefully crafted to reassure the President’s base of his commitment stemming illegal immigration while avoiding unnecessarily antagonizing the Senate Democrats he will need to strike a deal. But, any deal will likely involve some political pain for both parties.

Trump bought himself some room to maneuver Tuesday night. Sustaining it will require a substantial degree of discipline. Last year, the afterglow of Trump’s well-received address to a joint session of Congress was extinguished by Trump’s unfounded accusations that his predecessor, Barack Obama, tapped his phones. The coming days are sure to bring frustrations for Trump that will tempt a tweeted response that could send things spiraling. How much President Trump gains from Tuesday night’s speech will depend mightily on whether he can just let it go.

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