W. James Antle III
Politics, North America
Within seventy-two hours, he will likely say, do or tweet something that will overshadow Tuesday night’s speech.
One of the frustrating things about President Donald Trump is that he can rise to the occasion—but only on occasion.
Trump did well in his first State of the Union address. That shouldn’t be a surprise. His speech last year to the joint session of Congress, a similar exercise, was also successful.
“With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office,” Trump vowed on the campaign trail. He hasn’t lived up to that promise in any sustained way, but you can string together some examples of him at least reaching the Millard Fillmore level in a few big moments.
This kind of analysis enrages Trump’s many critics, who think the bar is set unacceptably low for the current president. But major political figures are always to some extent graded against expectations. And Trump did not merely read competently from a teleprompter. His use of State of the Union guests was deft and he effectively hit emotional notes in a more formal setting than his freewheeling rallies.
Where Trump’s detractors are right is that we should not expect this to become the norm. No grand pivot to a new Trump will occur. Within seventy-two hours, he will say, do or tweet something that will overshadow Tuesday night’s speech. In fact, his hot mic moment about releasing House Intelligence Committee Republicans’ FISA memo threatened to do so before he even left the building.
Much of the media reaction to Trump’s speech was a stunned amazement that he mostly talked about the agenda he promised to enact while running for president and was not sufficiently solicitous about Democratic sensibilities. These talking heads showed no similar concern about whether Rep. Joe Kennedy’s (D-MA) response contained any olive branches to Republicans. They portrayed opposition to President Barack Obama as merely churlish.
Democrats seethed about what they saw as racist dog whistles and alarm bells throughout Trump’s speech. “I was hoping to get through my life without having to witness an outwardly, explicitly racist American president, but my luck ran out,” said retiring Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) after the speech was over.