The Super Bowl usually coincides with the U.S. President’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech. During the halftime break in the football game, there was a spectacular show on February 3rd. Two days later there was another spectacular show – this time in the political arena, when President Donald Trump offered a spectacular show of a different kind in the U.S. Congress. It was his halftime SOTU speech of his first term in office. Despite all the problems and challenges and skepticism, it cannot be ruled out at all that ultimately, it may turn out to have been a show after only the first quarter of the Trump presidency. The impossible may be possible – at least as far as the predictions of most observers are concerned.
The President did not really call any startlingly new game plans in his speech held in partly hostile territory with one of his most implacable and powerful enemies, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi behind him. Donald Trump followed the traditional pattern of these speeches. He talked about the need for national unity, extolled the achievements of his administration (with less hyperbole than usual), promised a brighter future with infrastructural developments and addressed outstanding issues such as the expensive prescription drugs. He also mildly and obliquely criticized the opposition, especially the progressives on the left of the Democratic Party. He courted the core voters of his own party in foreign and security questions as well with claims that the allies are assuming a larger share in common defense within NATO and that his administration had succeeded in changing multilateral and bilateral trade agreements in favor of the U.S. And, of course, one of the central themes of the speech was the heroic efforts the President had been making in protecting the country from the illegal immigrants. Donald Trump again pledged himself to have the wall built along the U.S.-Mexican border – at least, in some sections. The conciliatory tone here was changed to a rather combative one, when the President again threatened to use his executive power to introduce national emergency in order to finance the construction bypassing Congress. The frontline was also drawn by the Democrats, who repeatedly committed themselves to blocking any attempt by the administration to get money for the wall from Congress.
With an eye to 2020
This recent State of the Union speech did not only mark the halftime of the President’s first term in office, but is also practically marked the beginning of the presidential campaign for 2020. The first primaries will be held in less than a year, and more than half a dozen Democratic Party hopefuls have already announced their candidacy. At first sight, a Democratic candidate should be a shoo-in in 2020 given Donald Trump’s chaotic and scandal-ridden presidency. However, one or two words of caution are in order here. Provided Donald Trump survives the Mueller-report and the renewed Congressional investigations in the House under the Democratic Party committee chairs, he is likely to be re-nominated by the Republicans, even if some will be holding their noses. There is no denying that Trump’s presidency and personality have further polarized American society and poisoned the political atmosphere, but it is also a fact that his presidency has so far produced tangible results, as well, especially in the area of the economy. The macroeconomic figures have not been as good as they are now in decades, and it is possible that people will forget his antics if their living conditions improve. His tough foreign policy messages have also found an echo in large segments of society, and if he can keep the Republican base together (so far, he has succeeded in doing that: his approval ratings are regularly between 80-90 percent among the Republicans), and if he can carry a relatively large portion of the independents, he will sure be a tough opponent to any Democratic candidate.
As of now, the policies of the known Democratic Party candidates will be a hard sell in 2020 if the economy performs as well as it is currently, and if Donald Trump does not commit a major mistake in foreign and security policy – so far, he has not done any short-term harm despite the unusual rhetoric; it is a different question what will happen to the so-called liberal world order in the medium or long term. The overwhelming majority of the voters are not concerned with medium and long term consequences; short-termism is what really defines their thinking. Large segments of the Democratic Party have already rejected the middle-of-the road policies of Hillary Clinton in 2016 in favor of the ideas of the self-termed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. The Democrats seem to have shifted to the left; their candidates for the presidency are trying to outdo each other with promises of higher taxes, extension of Obamacare and even more ‘progressive’ measures in this field such as a single payer system, abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and the like. If someone from the ‘progressives’ in the left wing of the Democratic Party emerged as the party’s candidate, he/she would be the ideal opponent for Trump, who might pose as the protector of such traditional American values as self-reliance, self-help, ’rugged individualism’, personal responsibility, and so on. Moreover, the Democrats, in general, are of two minds: on one hand, they would like to see a fresh face, preferably a woman with diverse ethnic background as their candidate for president in 2020, while, on the other one, polls taken among the Democrats regularly put Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, that is, white males in their 70s, on top of the pack.
Non-regulated political wrestling
The half-time show is over, and time has come again to make good on the promises made, and to prepare the ground for the next Super Bowl of political life, the presidential and congressional elections in 2020. Whatever strategies and tactics the President’s team and the Democrats choose will be closely watched and scrutinized on all sides. Unfortunately, one of the sure bets for the next two years is the intensification of a dirty game, a no-holds-barred style wrestling in opposition to a football game, which is tough but is minutely regulated.