Watching Washington often seems like standing by some immense merry-go-round where the same faces riding the same issues keep coming around and around, suggesting little progress toward anything except repeating the same old regular rhythms.
We witness episodic fascinations, via the media, on passing issue after passing issue, like that bowl of squash coming by at Thanksgiving dinner. North Korea comes and goes. Resignations come and go. A sensational book comes and goes. A committee memo comes and goes. Funding the government comes and never goes.
One major factor that enables President Trump to control the nation’s political news agenda and keep people watching is his volatile unpredictability, which causes many to wonder what he’ll do next, even when the events themselves are routine, annual and essentially empty.
Such was his first State of the Union Address the other day. In modern times, these annual speeches to both chambers of Congress have become hollow showpieces. They allow a chief executive to display his skills reading a teleprompter while his loyalists stand and applaud their favorite parts, and opponents don’t.
As a nation we could easily do without these nationally-televised shows, and not just because they preempt a favorite Tuesday evening crime program. But we can’t kill them for two reasons: the Constitution and Woodrow Wilson.
In its grandiloquent 18th century language, Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires every president “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Many early presidents met this obligation simply by dispatching their quilled report from the White House to the Capitol by messenger. However, in 1913, the professorial new President Woodrow Wilson decided to lecture Congress in person. The arrival, first, of radio and, then, television with instant free access to a nationwide audience of voters doomed any return to written reports.
Like most TV programming, State of the Unions stress sounds and appearances over substance. Remember anything from an Obama State of the Union, except one congressman shouting “You lie!”? (And actually, that wasn’t a State of the Union.)
Those presidents accustomed to life on-camera — think actor/TV host Ronald Reagan and TV host Trump — come across best. Others are hit-and-miss.
Reagan said more in his average 35-minute remarks than Bill Clinton ever did in his average 75-minute perorations. Across 12 networks, not counting livestreaming, Trump’s speech drew 45.6 million viewers. It lasted 80 minutes, but a good chunk of that came from 117 applause interruptions.
What surprised were the topics Democrats abstained from approving — growing jobs and economy, fighting the opioid epidemic, a path to citizenship for illegal residents, a family stricken by murder of two daughters by the MS-13 gang, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which Congress approved two decades ago.
Each president provides his shopping list of desired goals — legislative, political and aspirational. Trump was unusually optimistic; “Exciting progress is happening every day.”
Of course, SOTU’s are one-dimensional events, lacking any context. They all sound great. They’re supposed to as political stagecraft and as entertainment. So, what to do with State of the Unions?
Well, one useful thing would be to track what a president says he wants/will do. And what he actually gets/does.
A considerable portion of Trump’s nearly 6,000 words was spent recounting his first year’s achievements: Tax cuts enacted, jobs created, regulations eased or erased, black and Hispanic unemployment at new lows, stock market highs, worker bonuses and wage hikes, a cadre of conservative judges appointed, retaking nearly 100 percent of ISIS territory.
Trump’s first SOTU was well-crafted with powerful human examples of each point bearing witness in the House gallery. For once, Trump talked about other’s achievements, and it made him look stronger.
“I am asking Congress to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military,” he said, because “we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict.”
Now, here for future appraisal, is a partial list of Trump’s stated State of the Union goals:
- He wants to work in a bipartisan manner.
- Seek legislative authority for all Cabinet members to hold employees as tightly accountable as in the Veterans Administration now.
- End the “injustice” of high drug prices.
- Craft new, fair and reciprocal trade agreements.
- Have Congress pass an infrastructure repair bill of “at least” $1.5 trillion.
- Immigration reforms that end chain migration, the visa lottery, plus build a wall on the Mexican border and extend a path to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA children.
- Modernize and rebuild the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
- Legislation to ensure foreign aid only goes to friends of the U.S.
That’s not everything, of course. No good dealmaker shows all his cards. But it’s a lot to be held accountable for, especially in an election year with GOP control of Congress endangered.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.