Where policy was concerned, the story of Donald Trump’s first year in office was simple: The populist of the campaign trail, the man who won the Republican nomination and the White House by ignoring conservative orthodoxy and promising the moon, was replaced by a president who essentially conceded control of his agenda to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and spent down his limited political capital pursuing conventionally right-wing policies — unsuccessfully on health care, successfully on taxes, but in each case without much moderate or bipartisan support.
There are many reasons — one for almost every tweet — that Trump arrived at his first official State of the Union address as a wildly unpopular president despite a reasonably strong economy, but his failure to follow through on his campaign’s populist promises is high on the list. So you could read Tuesday night’s remarks (a better idea than listening to their somewhat soporific delivery) in part as an attempt to hit the reset button, to pitch himself as a centrist dealmaker rather than a predictable ideologue, to leave the legislative struggles of his first year behind and get back to selling people on things they actually want.
Thus even as he touted his tax cuts, Trump effectively buried further efforts at Obamacare repeal by suggesting that the repeal of the unpopular individual mandate sufficed as health care policy. There was no mention of deficit reduction or spending cuts, nor of the entitlement reforms dear to the heart of the House speaker just behind him. Apart from a long riff on immigration and a nod to judicial nominations, the conservatism of the speech was heavy on generalities about flag, faith and family, with more polarizing issues like abortion mentioned only by implication. Apart from the Islamic State, North Korea and Guantánamo Bay, the foreign policy section was ... strikingly empty. America First, it seems, means not having to bore viewers by bringing up anything about the world beyond our shores except our enemies. And then for domestic policy there was a list of ideas that Bernie Sanders might campaign on in 2020: cheaper prescription drugs, a $1.5 trillion gusher of infrastructure spending, even a promise to pursue paid family leave. Not conservative ideas, these — but mostly popular ones.
In this sense, and also in the canny and sometimes moving choices of inspirational figures in the balconies, I suspect the speech was effective, that it might help lift Trump temporarily upward from his mean of 38 percent approval toward the “we’re holding the House by our fingernails” promised land of 44 percent.
But an effective speech is not the same thing as an effective agenda, and right now there are no prospects for Trump’s popular ideas getting enacted or even really considered on the Hill. His party’s ideologues don’t want them, the opposition party doesn’t want to make a deal with Trump to get them, and his White House doesn’t actually have any detail behind the rhetoric. The ideas are just things that the president would probably like to do but that someone will talk him out of, or that he’ll forget about, or that he’ll offer in a halfhearted way and that Congress will never bother to take up.
The only exception, the only issue where he does actually have some details to offer, is immigration reform. But here the speech’s appeal to the assembled legislators to make a version of the deal he’s offering on DACA — essentially an amnesty and path to citizenship now in exchange for future immigration reductions — was undercut by all the fearmongering about immigrant crime that Trump wrapped it in. For Democratic politicians whose base doesn’t want to compromise and whose own political interest isn’t served by any kind of major immigration deal, the bloody-shirt business with MS-13 murders was a permission slip for intransigence: Why make a bargain with a president who talks like half your immigrant constituents are gangbangers?
So this State of the Union both showed what a more successful version of the Trump presidency would look like — still conservative on many fronts but more genuinely populist, less same-old GOP — and why the possibility of that success has probably already slipped from this administration’s grip. There were ideas here that could make Trump’s second year more successful than the first, but there was no plan to actually enact them, no sign that Trump is prepared to build bridges where he’s burned them, no plan for getting more out of this speech than just a temporary polling bump.
What there was instead was something you can expect to hear a lot of between now and November 2020: If you like this economy, you should like me, too.
Politicians have won re-election with that sort of messaging. But few of them have had as far to climb to reach even basic likability as President Donald Trump.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com.