WASHINGTON — Standing before a diverse new class of House Democrats, in the shadow of their new female speaker, President Trump showed on Tuesday how he plans to govern in a divided Washington.
The answer, judging by his words, is no differently than he did before.
Mr. Trump briefly acknowledged Nancy Pelosi as “Madam Speaker,” but dispensed with even perfunctory congratulations. He all but ignored the midterm elections that swept the Republican Party out of power in the House. And he vowed that the United States “will never be a socialist country,” likening the progressive Democrats in the chamber to the discredited leader of Venezuela.
The president did issue a call for bipartisan cooperation, and he invoked the heroism of World War II to celebrate a shared history. But on the issues that have rived Washington during Mr. Trump’s turbulent presidency, he did not give an inch.
Whether it was the border wall, which he insisted would be built; abortion, where he tried to fan conservative anger over comments made by Virginia’s governor; or the investigations of his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia, which he dismissed as “ridiculous” and “partisan,” Mr. Trump chose to appeal to his political base rather than trying to build bridges to Democrats.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation,” he declared, setting out the terms of his engagement with Congress, “there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”
Save for the majesty of the setting, the president’s adherence to his script, and a single unscripted moment when Mr. Trump tipped his hat to the scores of Democratic women elected to Congress last November, parts of this State of the Union speech could have been drawn from one of his “Make America Great Again” rallies.
Mr. Trump warned of a new wave of invading caravans from Central America, spoke of grisly crimes committed by illegal immigrants and accused what he said were wealthy politicians who oppose his immigration policies — presumably including Ms. Pelosi — of favoring open borders while “living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and political class than illegal immigration,” he said.
In front of him, however, the divide was between the mostly male Republicans, who applauded his red-meat lines, and the Democrats, many of them women, who were clad in white to signify the women’s suffrage movement.
Mr. Trump delighted in his role as the dismantler of Democratic legacies: He boasted of eliminating a “very unpopular” provision of Obamacare, withdrawing the United States from the “disastrous Iran nuclear deal” and renegotiating the “catastrophe known as Nafta.”
As for how the Republicans and Democrats might work together, Mr. Trump revived his proposal for infrastructure legislation, calling it “not an option” but a “necessity.” But he offered no details and breezed through the proposal, which is less popular among Republicans, in barely three lines, half as much time as he gave his campaign to reduce the price of prescription drugs.
Even Mr. Trump’s conciliatory phrases carried a partisan sting. He said, for example, “the agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda,” using a shortened form of Democratic that some Republicans favor as a mild slur against the opposing party.
For a president whose party lost 40 seats in the House three months ago, and who just lost a battle with Ms. Pelosi over the 35-day government shutdown, Mr. Trump behaved like the insurgent who rode into Washington two years ago with a congressional majority and a mandate to upend the establishment.
He claimed credit for a long list of economic and national security achievement, some of which were almost comically exaggerated. “If I had not been elected president of the United States,” he said, “we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
In addressing Congress on Tuesday, Mr. Trump found himself in an identical position to his three immediate predecessors, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — facing a hostile Congress after a devastating midterm defeat.
How each confronted the moment offers a window into their presidencies; together, they stand as a stark contrast to the current occupant of the Oval Office.
In 1995, Mr. Clinton responded to the Republican Revolution of the previous November by pivoting to the center and giving credence to the small-government agenda of Newt Gingrich and his fellow warriors. He admitted to missteps in his first two years in office, which had allowed his Republican opponents to caricature him as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Mr. Clinton sketched a vision of a leaner, more efficient government, with fewer regulations and an overhauled welfare system. The conservative commentator William Kristol marveled that it was the “most conservative State of the Union by a Democratic president in history.”
Twelve years later, Mr. Bush opened his State of the Union address with a warm tribute to Ms. Pelosi, who assumed the speaker’s gavel for the first time after Democrats swept to power in the House in 2006. He spoke of the pride her late father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., a congressman from Maryland, would have felt in seeing his “only daughter, Nancy, presiding tonight.”
It was a grace note for Mr. Bush, who was fighting to salvage his legacy after midterm elections that served as a referendum on the Iraq war and his bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Trump, by contrast, appeared to rush his opening remarks to deny Ms. Pelosi the chance to introduce him.
Mr. Obama’s speech in 2011 came days after former Representative Gabrielle Giffords was nearly killed in a mass shooting in Tucson — a tragedy that muted the normally partisan tone. Mr. Obama seized on the fleeting comity to declare, “Each of us is part of something greater — something more consequential than party or political preference.”
Like Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, he appealed to Republicans to find common ground — in his case behind a national project to make the United States more competitive in a rapidly changing global economy.
“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” Mr. Obama said, urging Americans to “out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.”
Mr. Trump referred to outspending and out-innovating major competitors, too, but he put it in the context of building nuclear weapons, after explaining why he pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
For presidents, State of the Union speeches rarely grease the wheels of bipartisanship. Mr. Clinton clashed repeatedly with Republicans after their congressional takeover, outmaneuvering Mr. Gingrich after he precipitated a government shutdown, though he made a historic deal on welfare overhaul that set the stage for his re-election in 1996.
Mr. Bush stuck to his troop surge in Iraq, reaping unexpected gains. But with the exception of a deal with the Democrats late in his term on the fiscal crisis, his legislative agenda was over by the time he spoke in 2011.
Mr. Obama’s call for bipartisanship went nowhere in the Republican Senate, where the leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, vowed to make Mr. Obama a one-term president. He failed to strike a grand bargain on fiscal policy with Speaker John A. Boehner, with both sides blaming the other for bad faith in the failed negotiation.
For Mr. Trump, the portents for cooperation seem even less promising. He offered no tangible compromise on the border wall, he faces a newly energized Democratic Party and he is heading into a presidential election year.
“We must choose between greatness and gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction,” Mr. Trump said.
The president implored his audience to choose “greatness,” but he gave them no road map for pursuing it.