America didn’t need to hear from President Donald Trump Tuesday night to understand the state of the union.
It’s uneasy, and will be for a while.
That was underscored in his address to Congress, as Trump veered from traditional calls for high aspirations and hopes to expressions of rank partisanship. Touching anecdotes about veterans and a survivor of childhood cancer were juxtaposed with harsh rhetoric on immigration. You didn’t have to be in the room to see — and even feel — the tension.
Trump stands at a vexing crossroads. His popularity is sinking after the disastrous federal government shutdown he engineered. Nearly twice as many people say the nation is worse off, not better, than a year ago. His agenda is colliding with a new House Democratic majority led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has outmaneuvered him and stood over him Tuesday night. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report looms.
Many domestic problems might seem even more difficult to solve now that perennially dysfunctional Washington is the seat of divided government. That point was driven home by the women who powered the Democratic takeover. They were dressed in white and arrayed before Trump in the House chamber. Give Trump credit for leading the cheers.
His call to reject the politics of revenge and embrace compromise was welcome. But that will be meaningless if he does not engage in the process, and if Democrats do not respond. Given Trump’s history of partisan attacks, it was no surprise Democrats often sat in silence. His appeal for unity was belied by doubling down on a divisive border wall.
Most troubling was Trump using this stage to denounce the “ridiculous partisan” Russia investigation as detrimental to the country. No, it’s about honoring the rule of law.
But there is common ground to mine. Cutting drug prices and teeing up an infrastructure program can get done if Trump and Democrats are willing to share the glory. There is even a common-sense deal to be made on immigration, but not by bashing negotiators, demonizing migrants, hyping a false border crisis and mischaracterizing opposition to his wall. That produced one shutdown. Some of the federal workers hurt by it sat in the gallery as Trump spoke, reminders of those unable to pay bills and forced to go to food pantries. Another shutdown could happen next week.
The nation and world teeter at another crossroads. The issues are big and their resolutions essential to avoid upending the post-World War II order that has kept much of the world safe and stable. Trump’s actions have contributed to those problems; now he must be part of the solutions. He must understand that attacking alliances like NATO have made the world more unstable.
Uncertain times put a premium on steady and principled leadership. But Americans have a president whose words they cannot trust because they so often are not true, whose actions are erratic and suspect because of his business dealings known and unknown, and whose White House struggles with day-to-day competence.
As Trump begins his third year, the challenges mount, and the need to calm the waters he has roiled grows more dire.