OPINION — Let’s start with the fact that I’m writing this before, not after, the State of the Union. (Deadlines are sometimes inconvenient.) So, with that caveat in place, I’m going to suggest that whatever Donald Trump said in his speech, whatever antics the Democrats planned to distract and disrupt the proceedings, what matters most isn’t the reaction in the House chamber or the post-speech punditry. What matters is whether the president’s words and his vision for the future connect with a decidedly divided American public.
It’s an understatement to say that there isn’t much that partisan America seems to agree on these days. Still, most voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — would probably agree that State of the Unions are usually long, dull laundry lists of accomplishments and proposals, preceded in the days leading up to them by great expectations, at least inside the Beltway. Ask anyone on the street six months after Barack Obama’s last SOTU or Donald Trump’s first to tell you what either said, and you’ll probably get more blank stares than recollections, good or bad.
Historically, State of the Union speeches rarely deliver memorable presidential rhetoric, in part because they try to please so many audiences, each one judging the speech’s merits through a very different lens.
Congress — Republicans and Democrats — will define the success or failure of the speech based on their partisan and ideological beliefs, and in the case of Trump, their personal feelings toward this controversial leader. If a president proposes lots of new spending to fund a rash of new programs, Democrats and the media, another audience, will praise its substance and vision.
If the speech takes a turn to the right by looking to limit government and federal spending, Republicans will see the speech as a great success, while their opposition and the mainstream media will see it as devoid of ideas. In other words, a dud. Bureaucrats and policy wonks — in and out of government — are probably more interested in the speech’s footnotes, checking to see where a president puts his issue focus and whether their “policy ox” is being gored or funded.
Finally, there are the special interest groups, from the Sierra Club and the AFL to the Chamber of Commerce and the NRA. They generally assess the speech from a very narrow perspective. No climate change talk, and the greens see red. No mention of the Second Amendment, and the gun lobby sends out the alarm.
Because every State of the Union has so many audiences it must placate, the speech is usually weighed down by the very heft of issues needed to keep the peace in Washington, assuming that’s still possible.
But despite the clout of the D.C. political class, the truth is the audience outside Washington — the millions of Americans watching the State of the Union — will determine whether Trump’s words resonate with an electorate growing increasingly impatient with the inability of the two parties to work together to solve their problems.
Much of Washington is wedded to a partisan viewpoint regardless of the issue, mired in the politics of resistance to an election outcome they simply can’t accept. But what hyper-partisans don’t seem to understand (and there are some on both sides) is that most people don’t see issues through their political prism.
This base-driven division has brought the nation to a kind of Alice in Wonderland moment where up is down and down is up, depending on whether you have an R or D behind your name.
Last Friday’s monthly jobs report showed the economy delivered an amazing 304,000 jobs and significant wage increases in January, beating expectations by a huge margin. On Monday, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stood on the Senate floor and, in a “prebuttal” to the State of the Union, actually said, “The president will say predictably that the state of our Union is strong, but the truth is the state of the Trump economy is failing America’s middle class.” By what measure?
Nancy Pelosi continues to claim that a border wall is “immoral” when the country has built nearly 700 miles of walls or fencing since 2006, border security that her party supported. Republicans aren’t totally immune from partisan overhype either, but the personal back-and-forth, the name calling and a purely partisan unwillingness to compromise has created an unusual environment for this State of the Union — a country without consensus.
In a recent focus group, we heard one voter bemoan the partisanship that makes this year’s State of the Union more likely a battleground than a genuine coming together to find a positive way forward for the country.
He told us, “I think we’ve become a people of labels. …It begins a divide. Once you divide you’ve got to pick a side. ... When you take a side, you got to defend. Once I defend, I’m going to defend to the end.”
In the most recent Winning the Issues survey, that divide was very apparent. Republicans were positive about the direction of the country 65-25 percent (right direction-wrong track). Democrats were negative, 16-77, while independents were negative at 30-54. When asked about the direction of the economy, Republicans think things are doing well by a 75-12 margin; Democrats, despite the economic numbers, think the economy is going badly 17-65, and independents split 41-41.
Most people who watch the State of the Union aren’t living in the political past, trying to undo the last presidential election. Nor are they fire-breathing members of a party base demanding “Medicare for All,” or a border wall or nothing.
These ordinary Americans are listening for a speech that defines the future, not relitigates the past. They are listening for a speech that unites, not divides, and offers real solutions to the everyday struggles they face. That’s a tall order for the White House speech writers this year with a country so divided, each side clinging to their own set of facts while folks begin to wonder whether we have a union at all.
By the time you finish reading this, the 2019 State of the Union may be a page in history. Let’s hope unity, not division, prevailed.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
SOTU: A brief history