Column: Think Trump’s State of the Union will move public opinion? Don’t count on it

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on an. 30, 2018.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

By this time next week, today will seem like a month ago. And, in fairness, that statement would be true on any given day of the last two or three years. The news cycle has accelerated so much — Fox News’ Bret Baier often complains it’s measured in dog years — that few topics can stay in the headlines for more than a few days.

That’s unfortunate for the president, because he and his supporters have high hopes for the State of the Union address Tuesday night. After Trump surrendered in the government shutdown fight, the spin from Trump’s most reliable defenders was that his capitulation was a brilliant masterstroke. It would give Democrats three weeks to prove they care about border security and, more importantly, allow the president to make his case directly to the American people.

Indeed, some claimed that the real reason Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to let Trump give the speech during the shutdown was that she was, in the words of Donald Trump Jr., “terrified of him having another opportunity to speak directly to the American people about her party’s obstruction, unfiltered and without her friends in the media running interference for her.”


There were many problems with this theory, but I’ll focus on two. Don Jr. offered this analysis a week after the president delivered a televised national address, in which he spoke directly to the American people, unfiltered, about the alleged crisis at the border. Public opinion on the wall or the shutdown didn’t budge, and the president’s standing in the shutdown didn’t improve.

His proposed wall has been unpopular with voters for his entire presidency. A little more cowbell from the president is very unlikely to change that.

Now we’re supposed to believe that Tuesday night’s State of the Union address will significantly move public opinion? Don’t count on it.

Presidents rarely say anything memorable whatsoever in a State of the Union. The only two utterances that come to mind from the last quarter-century are Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over” (I wish) and George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” line. It’s rarer still for presidents to lastingly move the needle of public opinion.

Barack Obama never managed to make the Affordable Care Act popular, before or after passage, despite scores of speeches and several State of the Union addresses. The notion that Trump can meaningful move voters, never mind Nancy Pelosi, with his rhetoric seems even more fanciful. His proposed wall has been unpopular with a majority of voters for his entire presidency. A little more cowbell from the president is very unlikely to change that.

That said, what could change public attitudes is the behavior of Democrats. They are so locked in to their “resistance” posture, it is conceivable that they will be rude enough that the party will suffer as a result. Recall that, last year, many Democrats refused to applaud when the president entered the chamber. Some even refused to applaud the now de rigueur human-prop heroes and victims presidents bring with them to these events. Throughout the speech, many behaved like petulant eye-rolling teenagers at a high school assembly.


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The partisan incentives for a repeat performance are even stronger this year. When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama in 2009, the outburst was most helpful to Obama. More significantly, it also benefited Wilson, who raised millions almost overnight off his intemperance. Trump can’t do much to change minds about him, but Democrats can quite easily appear just as unreasonable as they think Trump is.

Where Trump can — and probably will — help himself is by mending frayed relations with his own base. Coming off the abortion controversies in Virginia and New York, Trump is reportedly considering forceful pro-life language, which will be music to many ears on the right.

As I wrote in this space recently, it is almost inevitable that Trump will declare a national emergency to do an end run around Congress on wall construction. Nancy Pelosi has already said that any proposed compromise legislation to prevent a second shutdown in 10 days won’t have any wall funding in it.

The idea splits conservatives, perhaps not evenly, but significantly unifies Democrats. Trump will surely argue that Democrat unreasonableness makes such a declaration necessary, and we can be equally confident that at least some Democrats will help him make his case.


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