2018 elections will likely overshadow Trump State of the Union appeal for bipartisanship
It has been almost one year since President Donald Trump stood before Congress to deliver a message "of unity and strength" following a bitterly divisive presidential election. On Tuesday, Trump will return to the House floor to deliver his first State of the Union address where he is expected to deliver a similar message of bipartisanship to an arguably even more politically divided Congress and nation.
On Tuesday night, Trump is expected to review his accomplishments during his first year in office, with a heavy emphasis on the economy and tax plan, while making a pitch to Democrats that they ought to work with him to build infrastructure, reform the nation's immigration system and fund the military.
In a preview of the president's speech on Friday, an administration official explained that "the tone will be one of bipartisanship and it will be very forward-looking." Trump's address will revolve primarily around five issues the White House believes can earn support from Democrats and Republicans: jobs, infrastructure, immigration, fair trade and national security.
MIDTERMS GIVE DEMOCRATS 'EVERY INCENTIVE' TO OPPOSE TRUMP
In broad brush terms, the agenda has the potential to be unifying. But while politicians on the left and right often talk a good game about reaching across the aisle, there are powerful factors pushing back against any real bipartisanship cooperation, particularly as the midterm elections get closer.
"The election year dynamic is the most important aspect," said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "So I'm highly skeptical that you're going to see the president able to lead a bipartisan effort to move many elements of his agenda forward in an election year."
For Democrats seeking to take control of the House and possibly the Senate, it will be difficult to justify working with Trump on the items he will put on the table on Tuesday, especially with his approval ratings hovering in the single digits among Democratic voters and around 40 percent overall.
At the beginning of the Trump administration, a number of lawmakers expressed their willingness to work with Trump on areas of common concern. Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said they would help pass a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment package. That bipartisan goodwill evaporated as President Trump focused his first months in office on an unsuccessful and entirely partisan attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
Skelley explained that "it seems it's a little late in the game" for Trump to seriously push for bipartisan cooperation. "There would have been a benefit to the president making an effort on something like infrastructure back at the start of his administration. I think that was a real missed opportunity," he added. "I think talking about infrastructure now in 2018 with an election nine-and-change months away, it's probably too little too late on that front."
According to Jared Yates Sexton, an author and associate professor at Georgia Southern University, "the Democrats have every incentive to oppose anything he does." Even on an issue as ostensibly bipartisan as infrastructure investment, for Democrats to support Donald Trump' agenda "would only be muddying the waters in terms of them taking over Congress."
The most pressing bipartisan issue the president will address in his speech is immigration and what to do about the 700,000 immigrants who will lose their protected status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which will end in March. Trump gave a brief update on his speech, saying that his administration was going to "get something done" about immigration, stressing "it has to be bipartisan."
Earlier this month, it appeared a bipartisan deal was within reach when top Democrats and Republicans in the Senate said they were ready to accept a White House immigration deal that included funding for Trump's controversial border wall and protection for DACA recipients. Within days, the agreement blew up. Trump used vulgar rhetoric to describe immigrants from Africa, the White House hardened its position, Democrats responded in a protest that resulted in a short-term government shutdown, and the president's campaign responded with an ad accusing Democrats of being "complicit" in murders committed by illegal immigrants.
"I feel like this is a lot of empty talk," Sexton said of Trump's appeal to bipartisanship. "From what we've seen so far, I don't have a lot of faith they'll be capable of pulling this off."
THE ECONOMY IS A WIN FOR TRUMP, A LOSS FOR DEMOCRATS
While the president will be hard-pressed to claim credit for reaching across the aisle during his first year in office, he will be taking a victory lap and taking credit for a host of positive developments in the economy.
During his time in office, the economy hit 3 percent quarterly growth for two consecutive quarters. Unemployment has remained at its lowest rate since 2001. The stock market has repeatedly broken record highs. And confidence among businesses, manufacturers and investors have rebounded to levels that have not been seen since the 1990s.
Foreign investors and financiers gave President Trump's tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks a ringing endorsement at the Davos World Economic Forum, indicating that the changes under Trump were making the United States a more attractive place to invest. Companies also announced they were giving out bonuses to employees as a result of the tax cuts.
"The president is making an enormous impact on our economy, he's turning this country around," White House legislative director Marc Short said on ABC This Week. As such, the turnaround in the economy will be a primary focus of the president's State of the Union address.
"The fact of the matter is, the economy is expanding, it's doing much better than it was under the previous administration and President Trump is smart to say that," said S.T. Karnick, a research fellow at The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank.
However, the positive economic growth has not translated into higher approval ratings for Trump.
"The president certainly has a lot of good news to share with the American people regarding economic growth and various economic indicators," Skelley noted. Yet Trump's approval ratings have remained around 40 percent. "I think that says how unpopular Trump is."
Trump's low approval ratings didn't stop him from winning the 2016 election, and may not stand in the way of him getting more of his agenda passed, according to Karnick.
"The reality is going to make the difference," he said, noting that most Americans are responding negatively to the president's personality, his style and rhetoric, rather than the substance of his policies.
"People don't have to like you," Karnick noted, "but if you're doing well, they're going to vote for you." It happened in 1996 when President Bill Clinton was suffering in the polls, but the economy was booming.
If Trump focuses his Tuesday address on the economic gains of the past year, it will be exceedingly difficult for Democrats to rebut him, Karnick said.
"The approach they are going to take is to concentrate on Trump's personality and the things people dislike about that," he explained. "It's the smartest thing they can do, because they're really not winning on policy issues. ...Even though it seems Trump is taking the heat, especially from the mainstream media, the Democrats are the ones who really don't have anything that's resonating with the public, and it's the policy issues that are not resonating."
According to a recent poll, the majority of the American people are interested in hearing President Trump address the economy and job creation during his State of the Union address, both areas that have measurably improved in the past year. The only issue higher on voters' minds is for Trump to discuss health care.