A State of the Union speech functions as a national snapshot: A reflection of America, in the president’s view. The actual picture rarely is as clear, particularly with a president this mercurial and circumstances this strained.
President Donald Trump delivered his first address Tuesday in a caldron of partisan controversy, stoked most strongly by the Russia investigation. Politically, the nation is more divided than ever. Democratic members of Congress who boycotted the address reflected the mood more than Democratic Rep. Thomas Suozzi and Republican colleague Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, whose choice to sit together was a contrast to the palpable divisiveness in the room.
Trump said earlier in the day it would be a great achievement if he could unite the country. He’s right, even discounting his role in inflaming those divisions. His pitches for bipartisanship and unity could have been delivered by almost any conservative, asking for true collaboration on infrastructure and immigration and to protect Americans of all backgrounds.
His plea was welcome. The need is dire. But his actions will mean more than his words. Achieving the “new American moment” he evoked of “one American family” will require an embrace far more inclusive and an effort far more consistent than he has shown so far.
Nothing has sharpened divisions and inflamed passions like illegal immigration. The parents of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, two Brentwood teens brutally murdered by MS-13 members in September 2016, were recognized in a wrenching moment that bordered on exploitation as Trump rightly condemned gang violence, but again left the impression that immigrants are synonymous with crime. He asked for bipartisan support for a plan that’s been battered at both partisan extremes. We hope there’s space in between for a deal, but that won’t happen if Trump continues to denigrate minorities and other countries.
As expected, Trump touted his economic successes. His buoyant tone was understandable. Optimism is rising and the economy continues to improve, but not for all people. Numbers of jobs are growing, but at a slightly slower pace than in most of Barack Obama’s years. The stock market has been skyrocketing, but nearly half of Americans own no stock. Tax cuts were passed, but it’s unclear who the losers will be, especially in places like Long Island, and they seem likely to widen economic inequality.
Other victories also have many faces. Regulations have been repealed, but at what cost to the environment? The Islamic State has been weakened, but the Middle East is still fraught and no one knows what insurgency comes next. And though Trump has gotten conservative federal judges appointed, most are white men, and some picks were so unqualified even Republicans rejected them, a symptom of his general inability to fill the government he runs with competent people. More than one-third of the 630 key jobs requiring confirmation have no nominee.
Eleven months ago, Trump went before Congress and called for unity and bipartisanship. There was legitimate hope, but those words proved hollow. When Trump said Tuesday that the duty of the nation’s leaders is to respect, serve and listen to Americans, that means all Americans. He must turn the picture he painted into reality.