“Every major address like this is an opportunity for reset, but that is unlikely in this case and even more unlikely still given that it’s an election year,” said Lanhee J. Chen, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford who advised Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. “The current narrative, both for those who oppose the president and those who support him, has been established over the better part of two years — during a campaign and one year in office. It’s hard to see that changing dramatically.”
Matt Latimer, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said the effect of a State of the Union address could be overstated, especially if it was not followed up consistently, and Mr. Trump has shown little capacity for that. “If past history is any guide, the president will only bask in praise for so long before he demonstrates his self-destructive tendency to undo it all in the form of an avoidable controversy or an offensive tweet,” he said.
Mr. Trump largely stuck to the script as he read from the teleprompters, hailing American successes in fighting the Islamic State, challenging the nuclear aspirations of North Korea and calling for bipartisan deals on immigration and infrastructure. Unlike other presidents, who used this platform to unveil a fresh legislative agenda, Mr. Trump offered little new in the way of policy proposals.
As much as it has consumed him over the last year, Mr. Trump said nothing about the special counsel investigation into any collaboration between Russia and his campaign in 2016. And he largely avoided mentioning the acrimonious episodes of the last year beyond a line about standing for the national anthem, a reference to his criticism of National Football League players protesting racial injustice.
The partisan schism in the chamber was so powerful, though, that Democrats like Representative Nancy Pelosi of California remained in their seats unmoved even when he preached unity and many black lawmakers did not applaud when he cited record-low unemployment among black people, a trend that began six years before he took office. Some hissed when he promoted limiting the ability of immigrants to bring relatives to the United States.
In the hours before the speech, Mr. Trump was in reach-out mode. Meeting with television network anchors, he was asked what he had learned in his first year as president. “When you’re a businessman, you don’t have to worry about your heart, the heart,” he said. “You really do what’s best for you, you know, for almost purely monetary reasons. You know, you make your money.”
“In doing what I’m doing now,” he added, “a lot of it is heart, a lot of it is compassion, a lot of it is far beyond money, such as immigration, such as the things we’re talking about.”
Compassion is not the word his critics or even many of his admirers would use to characterize Mr. Trump’s tenure so far, at least when it comes to immigrants from Muslim countries or Africa, racial minorities protesting white supremacists, women subjected to sexual harassment or working families dependent on government health care programs. Just 33 percent of Americans said they thought of him as compassionate in a new Politico/Morning Consult poll.
His strength at the moment is an economy that seems to be humming and the possibility that it will grow stronger in the next year as a result of Mr. Trump’s tax cuts and regulatory rollback.
Still, his sales pitch went beyond the numbers. The economy grew 2.3 percent in 2017, more than in 2016 but less than in 2014 or 2015. More than two million new jobs were created last year, a significant achievement but less than in any of the last six years of Mr. Obama’s tenure.
The difference is that the accumulation of growth has pushed the unemployment rate down to 4.1 percent, a 17-year low, which means that wages may increase in the coming year as employers compete for scarcer workers. And the other difference is that Mr. Trump unabashedly sells the success of the economy without the caveats and reservations that Mr. Obama tended to favor.
“He has done a good job resetting expectations — something important and, yes, a better cheerleader for optimism than President Obama,” said R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia Business School and a former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under Mr. Bush.
Jared Bernstein, an economics adviser to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Obama never felt as comfortable with unalloyed claims of economic progress, fearing that it would look out of touch to many Americans who might not be enjoying the same benefits as others.
“Obama was a lot more cautious than Trump. Of course, who isn’t?” Mr. Bernstein said. “Like any president, he took some credit for economic gains over his watch, but he was always very cognizant, very conscious, that there were significant groups of people who were left behind, so any economic cheerleading was always tempered by the reality of the unequal distribution of economic growth.”
Mr. Trump’s cheerleading has helped convince Americans that the economy really is doing better. Fifty-eight percent of those who responded to a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post said the economy was in good or excellent shape, the most in 17 years. Yet just 38 percent credited Mr. Trump, while 50 percent said Mr. Obama deserved a great deal or good amount of credit.
Mr. Trump seems to recognize that he is having trouble uniting the country, but took no responsibility for that, saying that it preceded his ascension to power.
“I would love to be able to bring back our country into a great form of unity,” he told the anchors. “Without a major event where people pull together, that’s hard to do,” he added, referring to a catastrophic moment like a terrorist attack. “But I’d like to do it without that major event, because usually that major event is not a good thing. I would love to do it.”
That really would be a new American moment.
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