A State of the Union address is designed, of course, to garner good reviews and boost a president’s popularity. But it also serves other purposes. A president can use it to set priorities for his administration and party — to get everyone on his side working together. He can use it to lay the groundwork for future legislative proposals. It is a tool, in other words, for coordinating governing.
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address barely tried to use it that way. He did some of the standard political work any president would do: taking credit for national successes, touting policy victories. But he did almost nothing to set an agenda.
Republicans have been wondering what Trump’s infrastructure initiative is going to look like. They’re still wondering now that his speech is done; his comments on the subject were not informative. They have not been sure what form the administration wants paid family leave to take and whether it’s a real priority: Will voting against his proposal cost them? Will there be a proposal? They still don’t know. Ditto for opioids and vocational education.
It well may be that the administration will follow Trump’s remarks about reforming foreign aid to reward our friends and punish our enemies with actual legislation. Under past presidents, everyone would have expected such follow-up. Nobody on the Hill will be surprised if there isn’t any this time.
Some conservatives are unhappy that Trump said that he had stripped out the core of Obamacare by ending the individual mandate. They think it amounts to surrendering the cause of repeal of the whole law. But here, too, we can’t take the speech as a guide. If Republican senators announced a breakthrough on health-policy talks, there’s no reason to think Trump would feel compelled to put the issue on the back burner because he did so when addressing Congress.
The early line on the speech, as on so many Trump speeches, is that it was “presidential.” But it was unlike the addresses of most presidents in its nearly total refusal to lay out any ideas for the future. I say “nearly total” because on one issue, immigration, the president outlined an extremely ambitious agenda with enough detail to make for a useful debate.
Trump’s departure from State of the Union norms is partly a function of what we might call, optimistically, his novel governing style. But it also reflects his party’s lack of an agenda. The congressional Republicans don’t have any clearer sense of what they want to do in 2018. There’s nothing they all want to do legislatively that they think they can achieve or, relatedly, make popular.
It’s not an accident that immigration was the proposal Trump discussed at length. There’s a forcing event: the coming expiration of the temporary legal status that President Barack Obama granted to many of the illegal immigrants who came here as minors. In recent years, Congress has been much more likely to act in the face of crisis, sometimes manufactured crisis, than to do ordinary legislating. Without such a spur, elected officials find it almost impossible to imagine turning ideas into laws.
The rap on most State of the Union addresses is that they are “laundry lists.” This time the president, like his administration and party, was listless.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.