Why Trump's State of the Union speech will tell you almost nothing about his presidency
There will be a tendency before, during and after President Donald Trump's first State of the Union address Tuesday night to look at the speech as a sort of blueprint for how his next year in office will play out.Posted — Updated
No one should make that mistake.
Yes, past presidents have used the annual State of the Union address as part wish list/part outline of their coming year. But Trump is not like any president that has held the office before. So we need to stop using the same old frameworks -- and guideposts -- to describe and measure him.
Over the past year, I've come to think of Trump the way lots of sports analysts describe the NFL. They say it's a "week-to-week" league, meaning that just because a team looked great one week against one opponent is no guarantee they will look great the next week against a different opponent. After each slate of Sunday (and Monday) games, everything is wiped clean and everybody starts fresh. You can't use past performance to predict future results.
To me, the best way to think about -- and analyze -- Trump is as a day-to-day president. What he says and does on Monday has almost zero bearing on what he does on Tuesday. And it tells us absolutely nothing about what he plans to do on Friday.
Here's a real-world example from the recent past. On Tuesday January 9, Trump held a nearly-hour long immigration confab with bipartisan congressional leaders in which he repeatedly voiced support for a bipartisan solution to the challenges of DACA recipients and his proposed border wall.
"I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with," Trump told the lawmakers. "If they come to me with things I'm not in love with, I'm going to do it. Because I respect them."
Fast forward -- but not too fast -- to Thursday January 11. That's when a bipartisan meeting in the Oval Office to discuss the immigration deal struck by the so-called "Gang of Six" dissolved into rancor when Trump referred to several African countries as "shitholes" and wondered aloud why the US was accepting immigrants from them.
In the space of two days, Trump went from touting the necessity of a "bill of love" on immigration to denouncing a series of foreign nations as "shitholes" while rejecting the bipartisan Senate compromise legislation.
What did that Tuesday tell us about that Thursday? Literally nothing. In fact, if anything, Tuesday set off a series of "maybe Trump is ready to compromise!" storylines that were proven totally misguided within 48 hours of them being written.
The only consistent things in Trump's presidency over its first year are:
He acts -- and reacts -- largely out of a sense of personal grievance or a belief that he is being victimized. He views the media as a reliable scapegoat that effectively rallies his base. He is unpredictable.
The campaign Trump ran and the way he conducted his business prior to running for president all suggest this sort of behavior is the rule, not the exception. He is a gut player, someone who operates almost entirely on instinct. And someone not at all constrained by what he has said in the past. Even if that past is yesterday.
Day-to-day. A series of tweets, statements and policy pronouncements that lack a coherent narrative arc.
To spend time trying to draw some sort of line that ties all of the various dots that Trump puts on the board together is simply a mistake. It's not who Trump is, ever has been or ever will be.
The best way to understand Trump's State of the Union address tonight then is as one of many dots in Trump's world. It exists as important in its moment -- simply because Trump is the President of the United States and this is a speech the political world views as "major."
But it tells us nothing more about what Donald Trump's next year -- or even next month -- will look like than an early-morning tweet from the President's Twitter account.
Trump is the most unconventional president in the modern era -- and probably ever. Let's stop trying to jam him into our traditional narrative of what a president says and how he will act in the future.
It hasn't worked yet. And it's not going to suddenly start working.
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