If I may revive a wonderful word from the days of President George W. Bush, don’t “misunderestimate” President Donald Trump.
That thought came to mind as I watched teleprompter Trump deliver this year’s State of the Union address, followed the next day by Twitter Trump and rally Trump.
Like the tireless salesman and spinmeister that he is, Trump loves to ad-lib. For his advisers, trying to confine Trump to what’s on the teleprompter has been about as easy as, say, wrestling a squirming 3-year-old child into a T-shirt that’s maybe a tad too small.
But teleprompter Trump sailed through this year’s State of the Union address with a smooth confidence, based perhaps on the knowledge that the Republican senators were almost all set to acquit him the next day of impeachment charges brought by House Democrats.
Then Twitter Trump and rally Trump could show themselves again in spirited rants aimed at his political foes and anyone else who has refused to believe the charges against him were “a hoax.”
But back to the big speech. I did a double take several times, most strikingly when he received a rousing ovation for taking food access away from poor people.
“Under the last administration, more than 10 million people were added to the food-stamp rolls,” he said. “Under my administration, 7 million Americans have come off of food stamps, and 10 million people have been lifted off of welfare.”
That’s largely true, although there’s a fuzzy line between being “lifted” off of aid and being thrown off. The number of Americans on food stamps, properly called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, increased during the Obama years. But that was because of something called the recession, which began before Obama was elected.
Two years into his second term Obama signed a version of the annual farm bill that cut the food-stamp budget by $800 million. The number of people on food stamps has been declining ever since. So Obama didn’t exactly throw money at poor people.
But that’s in the past. Trump has to stand on his own now and, so far, he has successfully avoided messing up the recovering and growing economy that Obama left for him.
Trump is now in his reelection campaign phase, so his State of the Union address was notably sweetened by his reality TV-style honors to notable individuals. To spotlight school choice, a favorite issue of Vice President Mike Pence, he gave Janiyah Davis, a Philadelphia fourth grader, that promise of a scholarship to the school of her choice. He promoted retired Tuskegee Airman and World War II vet Charles McGee to brigadier general. He also reunited surprise guest Army Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams with his family in a surprise trip home from his fourth deployment in the Middle East.
And in a bold move of Trumpian chutzpah, he gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom to a friend, Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio giant, who just received an advanced lung cancer diagnosis. A lot of people, including me, found that inappropriate for one of the country’s leading political polarizers. But considering his condition, even I felt moved to put his politics aside to wish him well.
Trump also gave a little overdue time in the spotlight to Opportunity Zones in a plan spearheaded by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the body’s only Black Republican, and supported by the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. Using tax breaks to revive investment in underdeveloped communities, Opportunity Zones tend to have their biggest success in communities that need help the least, but we have to start somewhere.
On the whole, it was a great night for Trump. He even looked and sounded (gasp!) presidential, mostly. And many Democrats shared the frustration shown by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who followed his exaggerations and outright fabrications by grandly tearing his speech in two, while Trump basked in applause. Although many people shared her frustration, it probably wasn’t her best hour.
Worse for her party was their week of agony over the botched Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, which would end the week still uncertain as to which candidate won, all because of a smartphone app that apparently few knew how to operate. That’s not a good look for a party that’s trying to brand itself as ready for the future.
But Trump’s rambling rant the next day, when he was untethered to a teleprompter and still fuming over his impeachment fight, wasn’t his best hour, either.
Looking ahead, the 2020 campaign season has only begun. I expect to see a lot more Twitter Trump and rally Trump — and Democrats apparently need all the time that they can get. While they try to get their act together, Trump may be spinning his way to a second term.