Tuesday night Donald J. Trump, in an ancient and revered ritual, will stride through the center of the chamber of the House of Representatives, stop and greet the lawmakers who arrived early enough to claim prized aisle seats, and then will perform one of the few specific duties set out for the president in the Constitution. He will assess the state of the union and then set out his priorities for the coming year.
These addresses, given in person at least once by every chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt, are one of the set pieces of American civic life. It was in one of these addresses that James Monroe promulgated what we now know as the Monroe Doctrine. More than a century later, FDR used one of these addresses to set forth the Four Freedoms, a speech sadly unknown in our time. Some of these addresses were given amid wartime worries — FDR said in the last year of World War II that “Everything we are and have is at stake” — and one of them, from George W. Bush, came amid grave terrorism threats. Bill Clinton delivered one shortly after the Oval Office sex scandal broke. It was a masterpiece of composure amid a malignant contretemps.
Trump’s Tuesday address comes in unusual, unprecedented circumstances. He will set forth his plan for a government that was closed for weeks in a remorseless tug-of-of-war with his rivals in the Democratic congressional leadership. He may not pronounce the state of the union sound; the union itself, in a political oxymoron suitable for the times, is characterized mostly by disunion. The president is both consequence and cause of that disunion. His opponents are not blameless, though Trump’s ascendancy came in part because they were clueless — clueless as to how to appeal to, and serve, their natural constituency among the poor and striving. They abandoned their birthright to one of the promulgators of birtherism. It will not make a pleasing epitaph.
Presidents and their advisers struggle over these speeches, tinkering with language, inserting phrases, sometimes overhauling them from start to finish. In our homes we watch and the words wash over us; we’ve seen this spectacle before. But in Washington every syllable counts. In 1975, an entire floor of the Department of Transportation was mobilized because Gerald R. Ford uttered a few words about automobile gas mileage. You cannot imagine the whizzing of the IBM Selectric typewriters, the whirr of the Xerox machines and the murmurs in the halls that resulted.
Ford, who pronounced the state of the union “not good,” also uttered a sentence that the American people yearn to hear Tuesday night from Trump: “The moment has come to move in a new direction. We can do this by fashioning a new partnership between the Congress on the one hand, the White House on the other, and the people we both represent.”
Exactly two months after he collapsed in Pueblo, Colorado, on a doomed swing-around-the-circle-trip designed to win support for the Treaty of Versailles, Woodrow Wilson delivered his State of the Union message. His stroke kept him from giving the address in person, but his comments, made a century ago in the year 1919, give us a glimpse of the eternal struggle to smooth the edges of our political discourse. “I would call your attention to the widespread condition of political restlessness in our body politic,” Wilson wrote. “The causes of this unrest, while various and complicated, are superficial rather than deep-seated.”
Wilson wasn’t talking about the wealth gap or the feeling of hopelessness beyond America’s booming cities. He was worried about “the transfusion of radical theories from seething European centers” (meaning revolution spilling beyond Soviet Russia by the spread of the communist virus, particularly in defeated Germany) and from “the machinations of passionate and malevolent agitators” (meaning domestic radicals inspired by the Russian Revolution). “With the return to normal conditions, this unrest will rapidly disappear,” he said. “In the meantime, it does much evil. It seems to me that in dealing with this situation Congress should not be impatient or drastic but should seek rather to remove the causes.”
That last line — Congress should “seek rather to remove the causes” — has many possible adaptations today. Perhaps Trump will challenge Congress to address some of them, and perhaps he will pledge to join in that challenge. The tax code needs further adjustment — even big-money figures in New York now speak of taxing capital gains the same way as earned income — while Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid need to be secured for future generations; the nation’s roads, bridges and airports need to be refurbished; and above all the question of climate change has to be addressed, with honesty and urgency.
The question is whether Trump, just past the halfway point of his term and gearing for a difficult re-election campaign, wants to use this moment to rally his base or to broaden his appeal. He cannot do both. That Trump base is loyal, but it is also finite. Those outside the base are just as resolute in their opposition to the president. The situation — the “political restlessness in our body politic” that Wilson described, applied to our own time — seems almost hopeless.
Amid the Cold War breezes and gales of 1958, not long after the launch of the Sputnik satellite, Dwight Eisenhower nonetheless saw hope amid the struggle. To a Democratic Congress he said:
“I believe that this Congress possesses and will display the wisdom promptly to do its part in translating into law the actions demanded by our nation’s interests. But, to make law effective, our kind of government needs the full voluntary support of millions of Americans for these actions.”
The challenge is no different today. But there is little likelihood Trump will utter such a statement Tuesday, nor much chance that the Democrats will respond to his entreaties to build a wall on the border or challenge Obamacare once again.
The deadlock continues, the three-week clock ticks. In that splendid chamber, surrounded by columns made of Italian marble, are the political figures who can make it happen, if only they would, if only they worked to become worthy successors to the relief portraits of great statesmen installed three-quarters of a century ago and beckoning them to act in our time.