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Could Trump be the president who finishes off the State of the Union address?

- January 31, 2018

Last night, President Trump became the latest commander in chief to “give to the Congress information of the state of the union” and recommend legislative measures he judged “necessary and expedient,” as the U.S. Constitution dictates and invites.

From this vague mandate, U.S. presidents have wrought a sort of alchemy, turning duty into power. They have used the occasion to occupy center stage and set the national agenda — taking advantage both of legislators’ collective action problems and of the past century’s various communications revolutions. Radio, television and now social media have greatly expanded the president’s audience and, in principle, his persuasive powers — and the chance to seize the scarcest resource of all: public attention.

Of course, as with most efforts at alchemy, the result may not be pure gold.

The laundry list approach to the State of the Union may include old socks

For one thing, the SOTU is rarely a good speech. True, according to no less an authority than Trump, “some people said” his address last February — not technically a State of the Union but hard to differentiate — “was the single best speech ever made in that chamber.”

But in the real world, the SOTU tends to follow formula, and presidential archives suggest this has been true for a long time. Back in 1958 Eisenhower staffer Clarence Randall observed in his journal that the draft of Ike’s address “isn’t much of a document, and no State of the Union message ever will be. It never can have any character because it has to reflect the thinking of so many different people.”

A 1964 memo to LBJ White House aide Bill Moyers (yes, that Bill Moyers) noted that “everybody wants his own pet project mentioned, and the State of the Union message tends to evolve into a laundry list. … The situation has become almost ridiculous.”

More than two decades later, Reagan aide Mitch Daniels — these days the former governor of Indiana and the president of Purdue University — gave his own sartorial views on the 1986 State of the Union. “Everyone favors some sort of visionary, thematic SOTU as opposed to a legislative laundry list,” Daniels wrote. “This is an especially sound idea when your laundry consists mainly of sweat socks and old underwear.”

But rhetorical glory is rarely the point

The SOTU’s aim instead is to stress the administration’s achievements to the home audience and to show the president in command of a wide-ranging, substantive program for the year to come.

Historically, the “president’s program” has also served to set not just the legislative agenda but the bureaucratic agenda, too. The process of assembling the program has been used to make sure departments and agencies were following the White House’s lead, while poaching their most innovative ideas for national — presidential — presentation. The SOTU traditionally touts proposals that are quickly translated into specific legislative measures and sent at tactical intervals to Congress.

Trump’s speech was more vague than usual, with one big exception

While Trump’s speech Tuesday night did name-check a wide array of issues, it rarely veered into such substantive detail. It took half an hour before Trump first called on Congress to do something: Allow Cabinet members to fire bureaucrats “who fail the American people.” He proposed that $1.5 trillion be spent on infrastructure, in some combination of federal, state, local and private sector funding, but whose cash and what entities would build these “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways” were left undefined. Lower prices for prescription drugs were touted as “one of my greatest priorities,” and opioids as a “terrible crisis” and “scourge,” but we heard no details about how to address either.

Did the president ask for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force? Possibly. (“I’m also asking the Congress to ensure that, in the fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists.”) Russia and China were only mentioned in passing, and Russian intervention in U.S. politics not at all.

Immigration was the exception that proved the rule: The topic took up close to a quarter of the speech and the president laid out “four pillars” he wanted to see in a new bill.

Touting economic strength and launching partisan attacks are both part of the SOTU tradition

This year, the White House stressed, the speech would be “positive and forward-looking,” with less “American carnage” and more “New American Moment.” At times the president did “call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.” Within five minutes, he had turned to his guests in the gallery: heroes of Hurricane Harvey and of wildfires in the West. He even said something nice about California. This astute tactic guaranteed bipartisan applause at the outset — and mentioning “firefighters, police officers, border agents, medics and Marines” guaranteed it at the conclusion.

Still, unity may be hard to conjure after the broadsheets’ worth of pages of tweeted insults over the last year. Every recent president is a minority leader, of sorts — but Trump has spent less effort than most in seeking to broaden his base. The speech hit hard on “disastrous Obamacare” and took an extended detour into the need to stand for the national anthem, one of Trump’s favorite racially charged targets. In discussing immigration he stressed that “Americans are dreamers, too,” a sentiment immediately endorsed by KKK luminary David Duke — and a sharp contrast to Sen. John McCain’s recent invocation of the “creed” that defines Americans in the first place: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.”

The president did have good news to tout, and he took full advantage. Economic indicators are robust, and Trump’s approach to regulation and deregulation has been consistently aggressive. Some of the speech’s claims were exaggerated; for starters, “the biggest tax cuts in history” are not, and rolling back regulation is different from freezing pending rules or constraining new ones. There are risks in touting measures — the Dow Jones, say — that go down as well as “through the roof.” Still, Trump is hardly the first politician to take credit for positive economic news while hoping blame will deflect elsewhere.

Where Trump may be unique, though, is on another metric: in hastening the obsolescence of the State of the Union itself. For a long time, the attention focused on the address was a presidential, well, trump card. Its very regularity forced the presidency into action and helped coordinate the bureaucracy, the congressional agenda, and public attention.

But Trump’s addresses to Congress, so far at least, have achieved only the last. And after more than 2,000 tweets, Trump hardly depends on one winter’s night of media attention to focus the world on his rhetoric. If presidential words are no longer a finite resource, does the State of the Union still matter?

Editors’ note: This post has been edited to clarify that not all presidents delivered a State of the Union address or message.