WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will make a plea for unity in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but his words are likely to ring hollow with Democrats amid an ongoing border wall and immigration standoff.
The president is typically blunt and straightforward, his prepared and off-the-cuff remarks built less on rhetorical flourishes and more on bravado and definitive statements frequently questioned by critics and fact-checkers. But Tuesday evening’s address will feature several lofty lines aimed at convincing Democrats to work with him or — a major long shot — even support some of his policies.
“Together we can break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary process of America’s future,” Trump will tell members of both parties from the well of the House chamber, according to a senior administration official.
The line reflects Trump’s 2016 campaign-trail stump speech in which he painted himself as a once-in-a-generation businessman with the skills to strike deals with Democrats and shepherd major legislation on issues Americans identify as their top priorities through both chambers with bipartisan vote tallies. But the line also conjures an immediate level of irony since, other than a criminal justice bill and an opioids treatment measure he signed into law, his biggest legislative accomplishments have come without a single Democratic vote.
“The decision is ours to make,” the president will tell lawmakers about bridging those “old divisions” and building a “new coalition.” But there are scant signs the current political landscape will allow much bipartisanship to sprout from Washington’s toxic partisan soil.
The senior administration official was asked several times Friday whether the president and his top aides believe a call for “unity” will resonate with Democrats and the American public since Trump spends time each day harshly criticizing the opposition party.
Each time, the official noted that the issues on which Trump will propose both sides work together — infrastructure, lowering prescription drug prices, building what the official called a “safe and legal” immigration system, and “protecting American workers” — are things Democrats have supported “for years.”
But for every call Tuesday night for “unity,” his many recent declarations that the Democrats support “open borders” and “crime” and are exclusively focused on “playing political games” will hang over his address.
For instance, in an interview with CBS News taped Friday at the White House and aired Sunday morning, he called Speaker Nancy Pelosi “very bad for our country.” Her top spokesman fired back Friday as excerpts of the pre-Super Bowl interview surfaced, criticizing what he called Trump’s “recklessness” that led to the recent 35-day partial government shutdown.
White House aides are not disputing that their boss often has tough words for political opponents. They talk about his “unique” style, and insist cooperation can occur even if animosity exists.
“There is a lot of common ground that is doable and practical,” the senior administration official said Friday.
But even as the president calls for bipartisanship and tries to put pressure on Democrats by expressing support for issues on which he sees common ground, longtime Washington observers doubt the chamber will be full of goodwill as Trump speaks.
Democrats’ empty seats — some again say they will skip it — or collective chilliness could frustrate the impulsive president, said John Hudak of the left-leaning Brookings Institution.
“Unlike most times (Trump) is giving a speech, half of the room will not be applauding when he speaks,” Hudak said. What’s more, Pelosi will be seated behind him, meaning “the woman above him beat him twice badly.”
That element, coupled with “seeing … more than 50 percent of the room not applauding him … could become psychologically difficult for the president, and his reaction could be stepping on norms and reacting in ways that we don’t necessarily anticipate a president to do in that setting,” Hudak added.
Mark Hamrick, a senior economic analyst at the consumer financial services firm Bankrate.com, said Trump “still has an opportunity to try to be the deal-maker that he’s said he can be.”
But Hamrick suggested the president has an uphill climb because he will make the familiar walk down the House chamber’s center aisle “with falling approval ratings and politically hobbled after losing the Washington version of a game of ‘border wall chicken’ with … Pelosi.”
That “game” is ongoing, with Trump speaking as a Feb. 15 deadline approaches for a border security spending package. If no deal that Trump will sign emerges, a quarter of the federal government could again shut down.
White House officials are adamant that a healthy chunk of the president’s address will focus on immigration and border security. That part of his speech will be perhaps the most polarizing as 800,000 federal workers are worried anew about possibly not receiving paychecks.
Trump sent mixed messages on his next move in the CBS interview — perhaps his last public statements before the big speech — as he mulls another shutdown or declaring a national emergency to unlock Pentagon funds for his proposed border wall. (And also immediate Democratic lawsuits.)
“I don’t take anything off the table. I don’t like to take things off the table,” he said when asked about another partial shutdown. “It’s that alternative: It’s national emergency. It’s other things and you know there have been plenty national emergencies called.”
Even before Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress, Pelosi was rhetorically posturing to pin the blame for a second shutdown on the president.
Last week, she spoke of the “negative” and “terrible” economic effects of the recent shutdown. “I hope that any shutdown would be taken off the table as a reasonable approach to governance,” she said while also suggesting certain types of border fencing might provide a compromise if the president will sign off.
A deal to avert another shutdown that was politically harmful to Trump is one thing. The two sides getting together on other legislative issues, however, is another, Bankrate’s Hamrick said.
“As the nation slogs toward the 2020 presidential election, contentiousness will remain the order of the day in Washington and beyond,” he said. “One causality of that may well be a dearth of legislative output on the part of Congress, and by extension, the Trump administration.”
The odds for bipartisanship following the address are slim.
There is a higher likelihood that by the time Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy square off a few days later on the same House floor for their weekly colloquy, the address will already have been mostly forgotten.