President's Job Is to Be the Adult in the Room
If you know U.S. history, the view from the press gallery of the State of the Union Tuesday night was shocking and sad. The speech is unavoidably partisan -- but also, by tradition, a healing ritual of unity for The American Family. Instead, I found myself peering down at a cross between rival pep rallies and a giant playpen full of bawling infants.
The situation called for a president who could calm the din, speak honestly about our differences, and offer a message of hope for us as One Nation Under God. That president is not Donald John Trump. And that is too bad – not just for the country, but for him. His reelection chances, more than he evidently realizes, require him to grow up.
Let’s get the excuses, caveats and what-aboutisms out of the way.
Yes, the Democrats have spent every minute since Trump was elected trying not just to block his legislation and appointees but to oust him from office. Yes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, acting as childishly as everyone else in the room, theatrically tore up her copy of his speech when he finished. Yes, he was speaking on the eve of the Senate impeachment vote, and, although Trump knew he was going to be acquitted, it had to be annoying in the extreme to see a phalanx of House impeachment managers glaring up at him.
But he made no effort to rise above any of that. He refused to shake Pelosi’s hand when he arrived on the rostrum. He gave the most nakedly, loudly and aggressively political campaign speech I’ve ever heard in a State of the Union address. He led a rabid cheerleading section of his followers, who greeted his start of his speech with cries of “Four more years!”
No one can blame him for touting macro-economic successes, although a good bit of that progress was built on the foundation laid by “the previous administration,” as he put it, but only scornfully. The president is perfectly entitled to underscore the social principles he and his Republican and evangelical base care about, whether they involve abortion, gun rights, immigration policy or foreign policy.
There was only a single moment of cross-the-aisle graciousness, one so fleeting you might have missed it. It came amid his incessant boasting, this time about the bipartisan First Step Act he signed, designed to ease the integration of imprisoned felons back into civilian life. “Everybody said that criminal justice reform couldn’t be done, but I got it done,” he said, adding, “and the people in this room got it done.”
Was that so hard, Mr. President? Did you not notice that when you said that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rose to their feet? But bipartisanship runs counter to the Trump brand, which is a give-no-quarter need for total victory.
Whom did he honor and how? In an unprecedented ceremony in the Visitor’s Gallery, a Presidential Medal of Honor was draped around the neck of Rush Limbaugh, who deserved sympathy for his cancer, but who is also one of the most corrosive figures in modern American popular culture.
As divided as we are – and as much as Trump has worked to stoke that division – it is in his interest to lower the temperature. Doing that would meaning growing in office, as so many of his predecessors have done. It would mean growing up as a person. Many of his most enthusiastic supporters, after all, are evangelical Christians, and they are taught in Scripture that forgiveness is good for the soul. History rewards presidents who unify, not divide, and do it with a sense of graceful magnanimity.
Politically, Trump should know that his base is secure, and that the key to winning a second term once again lies in the views of swing voters, many of them women, in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They might agree with him on many issues, and on his self-assessment of his economic policies, but still wish that he would show even a hint of maturity.
He didn’t last night, and it may be too much to expect. He might not have it in him. There is no evidence so far that he does. But he will need it to win, and that might mean being man enough to shake Nancy Pelosi’s hand.