Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein

President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech is back on. With the government shutdown over, for now, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has invited him to Congress on Feb. 5. But Trump will probably waste the opportunity, just as he did last year.

The State of the Union isn't just any speech. It's a yearly event, tied to the budget and policy cycles; the president usually submits an official spending blueprint to Congress soon afterward. That's why everyone connected to policy making at the federal level looks to the address for indications about the president's positions and priorities.

But that's also why the ritual is usually a dud as an oratorical exercise. White House speechwriters try to compose an oration with a theme and a structure, only to be undermined as one after another new sentence or paragraph is inserted until the thing just becomes an ungainly laundry list of policy proposals. Most presidents try to avoid that, and inevitably fail. But the process is healthy for governing: Each proposal or policy statement that winds up in the speech is the outcome of a political struggle. The address furnishes a deadline for the administration to make decisions.

From the president's point of view, moreover, it's an opportunity to press the administration's priorities. Not all of those policies get enacted; in a system of separated institutions sharing powers, that can't happen. But the first step for getting anything done is to be clear what the administration wants. And that's complicated. A policy position reflects not just the president's desires, but contains the input of the various relevant departments and agencies, along with interest groups, party actors and more.

A president who moves ahead without this process is likely to be undercut constantly. Of course, listening to and accommodating enough of these policy players also may involve trimming back what the president originally wanted. But that's one of the ways the process can produce good policy: Experts, people who have to live with the policy and the people who actually have to carry it out are likely to know things the president may not know. Go through the process, and the president can wind up with a formidable full-press operation that is capable of getting as much out of Congress as possible and likely to produce policies that actually work.

It's not clear whether any of this is happening with Trump. Last year, he wound up wasting most of his State of the Union on extended riffs about the "heroes" sitting with the First Lady. Some of that theater is fine; it's a tradition that goes back to Ronald Reagan that is normally pretty harmless. It gives the speechwriters a little poetry to go with the prose of the laundry-list sections of the speech, and perhaps it can help sell policy proposals a bit by personalizing them. But a string of hero stories without the policy proposals isn't going to suddenly convert voters into big Trump fans, because speeches can't do that. It's just a waste.

And that's what it's likely to be. An administration that can't even manage to nominate a defense secretary (it's been over a month now) and is apparently losing its second Hill liaison in the last few months isn't actually capable at this point of doing the basic policy work that goes into a proper State of the Union. We'll probably get a vague mention, for example, of an infrastructure plan. But an actual bill that has a realistic chance of appealing to both parties, that Trump seems to want and that might really help him? Good luck with that.

Indeed, if there were serious initiatives in a State of the Union message, the White House communications team would already be hard at work preselling them. There's not even a hint of that right now.

No president will ever be completely irrelevant in Congress. Trump managed to cause a pointless train wreck of a shutdown just by threatening a veto, and he'll retain that power no matter what. But the State of the Union speech will likely be a strong signal that he'll be even weaker in Congress this year than he was in 2018.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.