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Editorial: Trump talks unity, doesn't achieve it

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, 1:45 a.m.
President Trump talks to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts while leaving the House chamber Tuesday after giving his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington.
President Trump talks to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts while leaving the House chamber Tuesday after giving his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington.

The State of the Union address hit all of its marks. President Trump danced through the annual speech, following all the footprints on the floor to pull off a waltz that moved from point to point. Acknowledge everyone. Applause. Use the buzzwords. America. Jobs. Economy. More applause.

And as usual for this ceremony, there was a bow to the bipartisan.

“Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation. The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people,” Trump said.

But it wasn’t. Most of the evening was very much an us-versus-them affair, from the coterie of white-clad Democratic congresswomen to the enthusiastic Republicans who responded loudly to the president’s targeted lines.

“Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country,” he said.

Instead, the address slalomed past issues like infrastructure and pediatric cancer to hit high notes for the Trump base. Illegal immigration. Crime. Abortion. The ongoing investigations into the president, his business, his campaign, his foundation and, this week, his inauguration committee.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

That’s not how you extend a hand.

The problem was not just a speech directed at one audience, despite the bipartisan preface. It was a speech delivered in hostile territory, in front of a Congress he no longer controls, in the midst of spending negotiations the president could once again reject and send the federal government careening back into a shutdown in less than two weeks.

You can’t persuade the people who already agree with you. Trump’s base would follow him into a volcano. The people who need to be brought to him lie outside the 40 percent or so who approve of his job performance in polls and have remained fairly firm since the 2016 election.

It was a speech with no policy surprises. The pieces about governance were as predictable as the New England Patriots making it into the NFL postseason. So were the responses. Democrats will hate this one. Republicans will love that.

What was a surprise were the genuine moments of reaction. When those Democratic congresswomen responded with delight to the president’s remarks about women in the workforce. His honest humor as he responded, “You weren’t supposed to do that. Thank you very much.”

And the spontaneous singing of “Happy Birthday to You” to Pittsburgh’s own Judah Samet, the Tree of Life congregant and Holocaust survivor who was Trump’s guest. It was his 81st birthday.

Imagine that. Moments where people were just people in the course of a political exchange. Not parties. Not operatives. Not footprints on the floor to foxtrot from topic to topic.

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