By THE EDITORIAL BOARD – The New York Times
There’s a level at which — when you consider that the president of the United States has cozied up to a foreign power that tampered with an American election, has repeatedly assaulted the country’s courts and its law enforcement and intelligence agencies, has defended neo-Nazis, has cried “fake news” while provably lying, and has been revealed so credibly to have paid off a porn star that it made news when his own wife chose to attend his biggest speech of the year — it’s hard to believe that the state of the union is strong.
And yet it is indeed strong, as President Trump said Tuesday, if not for all the reasons or in all the ways he claimed.
Every president has used the State of the Union address to tell his brand-building version of the national narrative, and Mr. Trump can’t be blamed for offering his own characteristically brazen interpretation. He declared “incredible progress” and “extraordinary success” and announced a “new American moment” in a speech that seemed to last an eternity. But he couldn’t sustain the optimistic tone promised in advance, lapsing back into dishonest invocations of a rising immigrant menace and internal terrorist threat in order to press his nativist ideas.
Yet Mr. Trump was correct to take note of the continued strength of the American economic recovery. He was right to note that the unemployment rate has continued to drop, and that some big employers have been raising wages. That’s all good. It means that Mr. Trump has done nothing so far to derail the slow, steady recovery that began under Barack Obama nine years ago. If growth continues or accelerates under this president, he will eventually, like Mr. Obama and the Federal Reserve, deserve a lot of credit.
Mr. Trump was also right to observe that stock indexes are at astonishing heights. Though that rally also began many years ago, he clearly deserves some credit. His administration, and the tax bill he signed (not a record cut, as he falsely claimed), have been great gifts to investors, albeit gifts charged to future generations in the form of debt.
Mr. Trump deserved to take a bow for the degradation of the Islamic State — again, a result of wise continuity with the policy of the previous administration — and for tightening sanctions on North Korea. That’s progress, much as we might wish he’d refrain from bragging about the size of his nuclear button.
Mr. Trump can’t be blamed for all the country’s woes. Yet after a year in office, he can now fairly be held accountable, together with the feckless and cynical congressional leadership, for making many of them worse.
Despite promising a $1 trillion infrastructure plan a year ago, a phantom plan whose price tag he raised to $1.5 trillion on Tuesday, he has yet to do anything to fix rusting bridges and faltering rail lines. His tax plan will undermine local efforts to make improvements around the country. He has yet to take serious action to end the opioid crisis. (“We have to do something about it,” he said Tuesday night, rather pathetically.) He has rubbed raw the nation’s wounds of bigotry and sexism. Without study or discernment, he has stripped away regulations meant to restrain climate change and to protect consumers. He seems utterly indifferent to improving an education system that is the foundation of the global competitiveness he insists he cares so much about. He’s deepened America’s commitment to Afghanistan with no exit strategy, and he’s raised tensions in the Middle East to no clear end. By gratuitously alienating allies and upending trade deals, he has eased the way for China’s hegemony.
On his watch, four months after a devastating hurricane, nearly half a million Puerto Ricans — American citizens — are still without electricity, a crisis that, before he mentioned it Tuesday night, Mr. Trump hadn’t addressed directly since November.
America’s immigration system was a mess before Mr. Trump took office, but so far he has injected only poison and confusion into the work of rationalizing it. Many studies have shown that immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans, and experts say the evidence doesn’t support any claim that undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate amount of crime. But Mr. Trump again on Tuesday raised the specter of an immigrant crime rampage. He’s right that the gang MS-13 is a terrible scourge; he was deeply wrong to suggest it was somehow representative of immigration’s effects on the nation.
Digging in on his maximalist demands for limiting legal immigration and dividing immigrant families, Mr. Trump said he would bring the immigration system into the 21st century. He’s actually trying to drag it back to a shameful, bigoted past.
In the campaign, Mr. Trump promised a new kind of politics, a populist administration that would end corruption in the capital, crack down on Wall Street and deliver for Middle America. Instead, underneath distracting surface spectacles like his trolling on Twitter, he is delivering the most ruthless, conventionally conservative domestic policy in memory. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way he is packing the courts — including the Supreme Court — with far-right justices, taking advantage of the vacancies created by nihilistic Republican filibusters of Obama appointees. Washington is more paralyzed than ever by partisanship, and as for corruption — well, lobbyists can now do their deals in the bar of the Trump International Hotel.
How, then, can we say with Donald Trump as president that the state of the union is strong? Here, Mr. Trump deserves much of the credit: So far, the reaction against his authoritarian impulses, assault on truth and cruelties great and petty has revealed abiding American strengths. Despite the strong economy, Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of this presidency. Most Americans say immigrants strengthen the country, according to the Pew Research Center. A profound national reckoning is underway over the status and treatment of women. Voters have streamed to the polls in off-year elections, defying suppression efforts even in Alabama to register their revulsion at Trumpian politics.
As a national party, the Democrats have yet to find a coherent, appealing voice with which to do more than rail against Mr. Trump and instead address the nation’s needs. But as Republican members of Congress, in disgust or despair, choose not to run again, first-time candidates, many of them women, are stepping forward at the grass roots across the United States.
If not exactly “woke,” this country might certainly be described as awakening, with a shot at shedding the civic apathy that has afflicted it for far too long. It is with backhanded gratitude that we might all thank President Trump for that.