President Donald Trump’s State of the Union message on Tuesday night will be about the state of the union, in more ways than one. As usual, the president is expected to survey the achievements of his administration in its first year and describe the challenges facing the nation in the coming year and how he hopes to meet them.
But it will also be a message on the state of the union politically, in terms of whether the nation’s lawmakers can behave civilly toward the chief executive in front of a nationwide audience after a year of some of the harshest verbal attacks ever leveled at a sitting president.
If decorum is breached, it would not be the first time. In 2009, President Barack Obama was interrupted by an outburst from Republican representative from South Carolina Joe Wilson, who shouted out “You lie!” when the president said that his proposed health -care bill would not cover illegal immigrants. Obama stopped, looked over in Wilson’s direction and said, “That’s not true,” then returned to his text.
The condemnatory reaction was immediate and bipartisan. It wasn’t only then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden sitting behind Obama whose faces registered shock and disapproval. Republican Sen. John McCain called Wilson’s outburst “totally disrespectful.” Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker agreed.
Wilson apologized right after the speech. “I let my emotions get the best of me … While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”
However, the solemn pronouncement of Obama’s chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel, that “no president has ever been treated like that. Ever.” was inaccurate. Even in recent history, during the years Emanuel was in Washington, presidents speaking before Congress have been subjected to heckling.
President Bill Clinton elicited a shouted “No!” from a Republican dissenter to his health-care plan during his 1993 State of the Union address. President George W. Bush’s prediction in 2005 that Social Security will be “exhausted and bankrupt by 2042” drew a round of boos from Democrats.
The White House has put out the word that the President Trump appearing before the joint session will not be the President Trump of the combative tweets. He intends to take a conciliatory tone, as in Davos, where he was remarkably successful in selling “America First” to a potentially hostile gathering. If it worked in Switzerland, it should work in Washington.
“The president is going to talk about how America is back,” said White House legislative director Marc Short, referring to the robust economy, low unemployment and the new tax program.
“The president is also going to make an appeal to Democrats … to say we need to rebuild our country. And to make an appeal that to do infrastructure, we need to do it in a bipartisan way,” said Short.
But given the prevailing antipathy, it will be hard to imagine that the president will emerge unscathed from his first State of the Union address.
Mr. Trump will likely offer a compromise plan for immigration reform: a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million “Dreamers,” immigrants who came to the United States as children and stayed illegally. But Democrats would have to pay a price for that concession in the form of support for a $25 billion Mexican border wall, dumping the diversity visa lottery, and narrowing family-based immigration laws by allowing immigrants to sponsor only spouses and minor children, not other relatives, for visas.
According to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), “If he made statements like we’ve heard at some other points, like ‘with heart’ and ‘bill of love,’ that kind of thing is helpful.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats are unlikely to be mollified by the rhetoric of compassion. They intend to make sure that the incendiary issue of illegal immigration will not be smothered in an appeal for unity. They reportedly are going to pack the House gallery with angry illegal immigrants, including Dreamers.
One conservative commentator recommended that President Trump should counter by filling the rest of the gallery with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and have them arrest the illegals then and there.
This, of course, is a different kind of dreaming; the make-no-compromise approach of those who view politics as the battleground of confrontation rather than the art of compromise, and would rather shut down the government than agree to anything that offends their sense of what’s right. But assuredly no such order will be given.
What is more likely is that there will be some sort of protest, signs held up, verbal heckling. It would be better for the country if Mrs. Pelosi would bear in mind her outrage at the behavior of Congressman Wilson, and discourage the immigrant guests from showing disrespect to the president.
Another tactic — less disruptive but perhaps equally offensive — would be a boycott of the president’s address. Those, like Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), who have already said they will do so, should reconsider. As Joe Wilson said, disagreeing with the president is one thing, but lack of civility is unacceptable.
On Tuesday night, President Trump will be an honored guest of Congress; to refuse to show up is the worst kind of bad manners. It shows disrespect, not only of the person who currently occupies the White House, but of the office of the presidency itself. And that would be a disservice to the American people as well.