Trump to seek unifying tone in State of the Union, but Democrats, experts have doubts


    FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

    President Donald Trump is expected to deliver “a bipartisan way forward” on immigration reform in his second State of the Union address Tuesday in a speech administration officials say will strike a unifying tone, but past presidents have found bringing Congress together to solve volatile issues much easier said in a nationally-televised address than done.

    "Together we can break decades of political stalemate, we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalition, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary process of America’s future,” Trump will say, according to an excerpt released by the White House.

    The prospect of Trump preaching unity has already raised some eyebrows, given the heated rhetoric typically exchanged between him and congressional Democrats. In the last few days, he has called the Democratic Party “the Party of late term abortion, high taxes, Open Borders and Crime,” claimed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “very bad for our country,” and alleged Democrats “have taken their obstruction and radicalism to a whole new UN-AMERICAN level,” while prominent Democrats have outright called him a racist.

    “It’s a very difficult pitch for the president to make given what he’s said in the last two months and the last two days,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University and co-author of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the 19th Century.” “When you assert that Speaker Pelosi is enabling human trafficking and, is in some sense, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people throughout the country, it’s no mean feat to pivot, call for bipartisanship and kumbaya.”

    Several subjects Trump intends to discuss in his address lend themselves to a degree of bipartisanship. Infrastructure, prescription drug pricing, and trade are all areas where Trump can find some common ground with Democrats, although significant differences remain on each of those subjects too.

    “You can attempt to reach out across the aisle, but the controversial topics also have to be a large portion of the speech,” said Aaron Kall, editor of “The State of the Union is...: Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years” and director of debate at the University of Michigan.

    Immigration is inevitably going to be messier. Trump will be speaking in the wake of a five-week partial government shutdown spurred by his demands for $5.7 billion to fund border wall construction and Democratic opposition to any wall funding, with another possible shutdown on the horizon. Republicans and Democrats are now engaged in negotiations on a compromise that Trump has already dismissed as “a waste of time.”

    The president is expected to use the speech to communicate to Congress and the tens of millions watching at home why he wants the wall and why he may declare a national emergency to get money for it if lawmakers cannot reach an agreement by Feb. 15.

    "I don't want to say. But you'll hear the State of the Union and then you'll see what happens right after the State of the Union, OK?" Trump told reporters Friday regarding a potential national emergency announcement.

    Some Democrats say they are open to a bipartisan overture from Trump in the address, especially if he is willing to make what they consider a fair compromise.

    “I hope he’s willing to work with Congress, both sides of the aisle, and get past this whole shutdown scenario,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., last week. “There’s a deal to be had easily.”

    However, Kall observed Democrats are not the only ones Trump needs to convince. If the end result of the current immigration debate is a national emergency declaration, as many expect, Republicans who have voiced opposition to the move will face pressure to back Democratic resolutions rebuking him.

    “Really, the major target audience is his own party, especially in the Senate,” Kall said.

    Other presidents have offered lofty, unifying rhetoric on immigration in the State of the Union, only to see legislative progress grind to a halt in the face of political reality or underwhelming half-measures take the place of real reform. President Bill Clinton’s administration had some success in tackling illegal immigration, but the legislation that emerged from Congress at the time was relatively narrow in scope.

    “We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws,” Clinton said in his 1995 address. “It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.”

    After extensive political jockeying, Congress did pass an immigration reform bill under Clinton in late 1996. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act ultimately made it easier for the government to deport immigrants who were in the country illegally and harder for them to establish a legal presence. It also gave the attorney general authority to build barriers along the southern border.

    Bills that met other presidents’ demands were unable to overcome procedural hurdles, even after they made impassioned pleas for progress before an audience of millions.

    “We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals,” President George W. Bush said in his 2007 speech. “We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty. Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”

    Months after Bush urged lawmakers to reform the immigration system, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was introduced in the Senate. The legislation, crafted by members of both parties with White House support, culled elements from three failed immigration bills, but it never made it to a final vote.

    “We know what needs to be done,” President Barack Obama said in the 2013 State of the Union address. “As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

    A bill cobbled together by the bipartisan Gang of Eight in the Senate with Obama’s endorsement passed with 68 votes in June 2013, but House Republicans refused to put it up for a vote. Among other border security measures, it would have required DHS to produce a report identifying areas where fencing and other infrastructure should be used.

    Trump appealed for comprehensive action last year as well, and between February and June, the House and Senate took several votes on compromise bills, some of which he supported and some he opposed. None attracted enough support to pass in either chamber.

    “In recent months, my administration has met extensively with both Democrats and Republicans to craft a bipartisan approach to immigration reform,” Trump said in his 2018 address. “Based on these discussions, we presented the Congress with a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise — one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.”

    The White House has not offered details on what this year’s “bipartisan way forward” will be, but Trump’s vision for a comprehensive immigration deal in the past has included wall funding, protection of some sort for so-called Dreamers, and new limits on legal immigration that would make the system more merit-based.

    “These four pillars will produce legislation that fulfills my ironclad pledge to only sign a bill that puts America first,” Trump told lawmakers in 2018. “So, let us come together, set politics aside, and finally get the job done.”

    Experts are skeptical similar sentiments will succeed in 2019 with a newly-empowered Democratic majority in the House and some Republicans balking at more extreme measures in the Senate. If anything, Trump faces a more difficult task than his predecessors.

    “The main difference is, it’s many years later and the problems got worse,” Kall said. “In Congress, the polarization got worse.”

    If Trump manages to deliver a convincing and credible call for bipartisan action on immigration or anything else Tuesday night, the challenge, as always, will be in what comes next. His previous attempts to set a unifying tone have been quickly followed by tweets and statements insulting, demeaning, or threatening Democrats.

    “If he suspends the harsh partisan rhetoric for 70 minutes and then goes back to letting Trump be Trump the very next morning, I doubt that the State of the Union rhetoric will be credible,” Altschuler said.

    Other aspects of the speech may also stoke partisan divisions. Amid controversy over new legislation in New York and Virginia aimed at easing restrictions on third-trimester abortions, Trump is reportedly considering making a firm anti-abortion statement that could rouse his base but alienate Democrats.

    “There’s really no wiggle room there,” Kall said. “It’s something that’s going to cause some raw emotions on both sides.”

    For all the attention the speech will receive, though, experts say the State of the Union address typically has little lasting impact on public opinion.

    “It’s rarely moved the needle all that much for very long,” Altschuler said, noting that President Obama’s appeal for health care reform before a joint session of Congress was briefly popular before it was attacked by Republicans and corporations in the months afterward.

    When the State of the Union has worked to advance a policy agenda, it has been accompanied by a concerted messaging campaign and sustained attention from the White House. Neither of those things has been this administration’s strong suit.

    “You can smooth it over for the hour or so of the speech,” Kall said, “but what he does after, the follow-through, that’s the key. Does it snowball into something positive or does he ruin it all with a tweet the next day?”

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