- - Monday, February 4, 2019


The Constitution requires that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” For Donald Trump, that “time to time” will fall Tuesday evening.

By many accounts, the state of the union is strong indeed. The U.S. economy is, in the words of Marketwatch, “in a sweet spot.” The job market is in remarkably rude health; another 300,000 jobs were created in January, beating expectations of even bullish economists. As Marketwatch observes, “the U.S. has averaged a whopping 241,000 new jobs a month since November, an unusually strong increase after almost 10 years of economic expansion that’s reduced the unemployment rate to 4 percent.” Wages are ticking upward, too. Inflation is low. Fears of a recession are receding. The stock market has rebounded nicely after a tumultuous couple of months.

But man does not live by employment data alone. There are signs that, despite the good economic times, the country doesn’t feel good about itself. There are persuasive reasons why. In 2018, U.S. life expectancy declined for the second year in a row, falling from 78.7 years old to 78.6 years old. That’s almost unheard of in a rich and booming country where lifespans are expected to rise with incomes. Yet, with boom times as a backdrop, a tragic and frightening glut of opioid overdoses, suicides, and alcohol poisonings are felling Americans at an alarming rate.

A few data points explain this baleful trend, beginning with the 47,000 Americans who killed themselves in 2017, the last year for which data are available. We’re currently experiencing the highest suicide rate in a half-century. In that same year, 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, more than died during the entirety of the Vietnam War. Nobody seems to know what to do about it.

The state of the public debate is similarly dispiriting. The United States endured a weeks-long government shutdown because the Democratic Party, which controls one half of one third of the U.S. government, refuses to participate responsibly. President Trump, pointing to the crisis at the Mexican border, requested a small outlay to build a barrier along that porous frontier. Not only would the Democrats not entertain such an offer, they refused even to discuss it. The American system can only function with compromise and debate from both sides.

This spirit of irresponsibility and recklessness was on display during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last fall. Mr. Kavanaugh was subjected to a campaign of relentless character assassination, leading many Americans to despair for public discourse, and dread the fight to come when, as is likely, this president appoints another justice to the Supreme Court.

It’s not only the politicians who have dragged the country’s conversation down. Twitter has become home to a loud and largely ignorant mob, which one day sneers at Catholic students for their religious beliefs, and the next day moves on to more prey. Journalists join in, and left in the wreckage are ruined lives.

President Trump, for all his accomplishments, and there are many, is a divisive figure, given to intemperate rhetoric. No matter what he says at the State of the Union Tuesday evening, we won’t be entering a second “era of good feeling” any time soon.

What the president can do, as the Constitution demands, is to make several recommendations to Congress. One would be, again, to build a barrier along the Mexican border. The crisis there is too big to ignore. The Democrats are certain to reject his entreaties, but this would clarify the matter, and set the stage for the 2020 election. He could also take a shot at his long-vaunted infrastructure plan. The Democrats will likely block this too, revealing them once more to be obstructionists. The president would also do well to make a statement against abortion, particularly as the Democrats, led by governors in New York and Virginia tip-toe ever closer to endorsing infanticide.

State of the Union addresses are rarely remembered years — or even days — after delivery. But President Trump retains the capacity to surprise. We might see a few fireworks Tuesday evening.

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