President Donald Trump hinted last week that one theme of his State of the Union address on Tuesday will be unity.
The current state of his presidency: turbulence and uncertainty.
Trump will deliver his call for harmony in a new era of divided government and at a time when he has been weakened politically by a just-ended government shutdown – the longest in U.S. history – and by other factors
House Democrats are back in power and spoiling for a fight. (See “government shutdown.”) Senate Republicans are restless and suddenly willing to stand up to their commander-in-chief. (See “Syria.”) Special counsel Robert Mueller is still investigating possible Russian coordination with his presidential campaign and still issuing indictments. (See “Roger Stone.”)
Going against such powerful headwinds, it will be hard for Trump to accomplish much of anything in the coming year, no matter what agenda he lays out in his State of the Union address, political analysts say.
“There are some very bitter feelings from both sides about what has happened with the government shutdown,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist with close ties to Republicans on Capitol Hill. “That is going to likely hurt the chances for getting major pieces of legislation done this year.”
Trump will march into the House chamber, where he will deliver his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, as a severely wounded president – one who at times tries the patience of even some members of his own party, said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a frequent Trump critic.
“The concern is a wounded president tested by a newly minted speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi,” Steele said. “Folks are not very excited about the potential of what could come from the president standing before the nation, sort of drawing some bromides and egging on the Democrats.”
Moving past the shutdown
In Congress, many Republicans lament the damage inflicted by the 35-day government shutdown – triggered by Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – and openly worry that it will impede their ability to get anything done.
“It’s not been a promising start – let’s be honest,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “We’ve been in a fight, and it’s been over an issue that caused harm to the economy and to the country. But I think we can get beyond it now.”
Pelosi, who regained the speaker’s gavel in January, has indicated that while Democrats will fight Trump on policies they consider bad for the country, they are open to working with him on issues such as infrastructure and lowering prescription-drug prices.
But Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist and political commentator, said he has low expectations for what is possible over the next two years. In some ways, that has more to do with the Democrats than Trump, he said.
“The fact is, they don’t want to give him a win on anything because their activists and donors would go nuts if Pelosi helps Trump achieve anything,” said Jennings, who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and is a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“What good does it do Nancy Pelosi to help Donald Trump appear to be a president who can operate and govern in divided government?” Jennings asked. “It is in her and her party’s best interest to make Trump look lost, to make government look broken and to deprive the country of meaningful progress on issues like immigration. The shutdown fiasco tells me the Democrats want political wins more than policy concessions.”
2020 complicates the agenda
Next year’s presidential election and congressional races further complicate the prospects for any substantive legislative agenda, Bonjean said.
“If you look at what’s working against Congress and the White House, time is not on their side here in a 2020 election cycle,” he said. “Both sides are burning valuable time that they could use to be working on other issues that matter to them, whether it’s health care, transportation funding, technology policy – a vast variety of issues.”
Yet the focus right now remains on border security. A bipartisan congressional committee has just two weeks to negotiate a deal to secure the southern border or risk another government shutdown on Feb. 15, when current funding will lapse.
Border security may be important to Trump’s base, “but it’s also stymieing the efforts of everyone trying to get their legislative agendas through now,” Bonjean said.
If Trump and Congress need a template for how to get things done after a nasty partisan confrontation, they could look to the example set in the mid-1990s by President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
A bitter budget battle between the Democratic president and the Republican House speaker led to a 21-day government shutdown, the longest ever before the recent one broke that record. Yet, when it was over, Clinton and the GOP Congress still managed to pass several pieces of major legislation, including welfare reform and a health insurance modernization bill.
“People wouldn’t have thought the Gingrich Republican Congress and the Clinton White House would have gotten a lot done,” said Dan Meyer, who was Gingrich’s chief of staff at the time. “And yet, indeed, they both had an interest in getting a lot done.”
Steele takes issue with the argument that Democrats are looking to deny Trump legislative victories just to hurt his re-election campaign.
“I don’t buy this idea that Democrats are going to be obstructionists the way Republicans were during (Barack) Obama’s term and at every turn realize that ‘we have no incentive to help this president,’” he said. “I don’t get that sense. Because the Democrats also will also have to show they can deliver something. The country in 18 months is not just going to turn (the presidency) over to them just because they decide they don’t like Donald Trump. (Democrats) get the political reality of their current position as well.”
Trump makes things harder on himself, Steele said, because he doesn’t trust the advice of people “who are much smarter than he is and won’t allow those people to help him define success.” He often makes things worse by going on Twitter and undermining his own message, Steele said.
“It’s not just policy shortcomings,” Steele said. “It’s not just staffing shortcomings. It’s not just his incredibly disturbing bromance with Vladimir Putin or anyone who is considered a strongman. It’s not just his inability to stay off Twitter crack. It’s a combination of all of these things that are self-inflicted wounds.”
Source: USA Today (Michael Collins)
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