Published on February 5, 2019
President Trump delivered the best, most Reaganesque speech of his tenure Tuesday night. The challenge will be whether this becomes his leitmotif going forward or whether it is merely a forgotten and missed moment.
From start to finish, Trump did something he rarely does: extol the virtue of the everyday American and give credit to the freedom that is our birthright. Yes, there were a couple of moments of typical Trumpian braggadocio, but in the main this was an exercise in unusual humility.
Trump’s political problems stem from the perception that he represents the United States’ past in his character, his manner and his ideas — and in each, the perception that he embodies America’s flaws instead of its virtues. Step by step, the speech worked to subtly undermine those perceptions.
About half of the people in the gallery were women or people of color, and the white men were seemingly all cops, veterans or Holocaust survivors. That was no accident.
His section on immigration was the least aggressive of any I can recall, and his line about how legal immigrants enrich the country goes directly at the perception that he is anti-immigrant.
The bulk of the speech could have been given by a 1990s-era Democrat. No extolling of the entrepreneur, a staple of modern Republican dogma. Promises of spending, spending, spending — on family leave, on childhood cancer, on infrastructure. Troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Syria, negotiation with North Korea, confrontation with Iran — this is the sort of policy mix that President Bill Clinton in his prime could have endorsed.
The same, sadly, is true of the president’s foray into abortion policy. Whatever one thinks about Roe v. Wade, the specter of abortion at a time when it could easily be possible to save the life of the soon-to-be-born child was rightly condemned by Trump. When Clinton said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” he surely did not envision a day when most members of his political party would sit in stony silence at this part of the talk.
Trump’s reelection task is simple yet profoundly difficult: He must persuade about 6 percent of the voters who have disapproved of him throughout his presidency to change their minds. The State of the Union speech is a wonderful statement of intent to do just that. Whether he can maintain the rhetorical and policy discipline to do that remains to be seen.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.