On the verge of giving his postponed State of the Union address, President Trump intends to strike a “unifying tone” and to tell the nation that “we can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, and build new coalitions.”
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It certainly feels like another “Back to the Future” moment.
This is exactly what aides to Trump said he was going to do at last year’s State of Union, and what he personally told me he was going to do in a meeting I had with him in the Oval Office on the day of the speech.
The president invited me over to the White House that day knowing I had been critical of him since Day 1 of his presidency, and would continue to be critical of him, if necessary, moving forward. He told me in that meeting he was going to heal and unify the country in his address to Congress that night.
I told the president it was a good idea since one of the major problems facing America was how divided we were politically and that this chasm, more than anything else, was keeping us from reaching the common good. Trump immediately said the country was divided before he took office and that Presidents Bush and Obama were to blame.
I agreed with Trump that the country was divided before him, but it had gotten much worse since he took office, and that since he was the current president of the United States it was his responsibility to try to fix it. He said that was what he planned on doing in his speech.
I told the president that giving a “unifying” speech was very important, but that he had to do much more than give a singular speech. He responded to me with an inquisitive look, as if to ask, “What do you mean?”
I said just giving one speech won’t fix the problem. He had to heal the country in all his words and actions going forward, I told him, and show America that he would practice what he preached in both politics and policy. He said that was what he was going to do.
We know Trump pretty much abandoned that plan by the time he got to the well of the House of Representatives to give his address that night. He did have a few “unifying” words, but his speech overall wasn’t healing and didn’t come across in any serious bipartisan or non-partisan way.
And in the days that followed, he went right back to his divisive language and actions. There was literally no follow-through in what he told me was going to be in his speech, nor a follow-up after the speech, as I had pushed him to do.
I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed.
Count me as incredulous that the president will come to Congress tomorrow to heal the divisions and put country before party, or the whole before the parts. I am an optimist, though, so I am open and hopeful that he can change at some point.
But I wouldn’t make a bet in Las Vegas on it.
The problem Trump faces today is even more difficult than he faced a year ago. He is giving this State of Union to a Congress and a public that, according to polls, is much more hardened in their negative view of him.
And in the aftermath of shutting down part of the government for over a month to try and get funding for a border wall the majority of the country doesn’t want or think we need, people are not going to just accept the right words read in the right order.
They are going to want to see actions quickly, and follow-up that proves he is fundamentally changing his approach to politics.
I will take a pause and be open-minded as I watch this year’s State of the Union and see if the president begins the process that he promised — and told me personally in the Oval Office — more than a year ago. He didn’t make the steps then as he said he would, but I have to believe in the possibility of change even when it seems impossible.
The public will once again give him a chance, but will be observing this speech, like me, with many doubts about his sincerity on healing America.