“The state of the Union is strong.”
That is the case most presidents attempt to make in their addresses to the nation, especially as re-election approaches. From an economic standpoint, Donald Trump has an impressive case to make for America’s strength. But, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans rarely look to over-all economic indicators (like GDP) as evidence of national well-being. Instead, Americans increasingly concern themselves with inequality indexes, wage gaps, and other factors that suggest whether certain (often racial) subgroups are succeeding or failing. A strong economy is no longer enough to convince Americans that America is strong.
Americans feel fatigued. That is something that good GDP numbers and high stock prices cannot fix. Americans feel fatigued because perpetual activism is failing. Eight years of prioritizing social inequality concerns during Obama's presidency didn’t seem to make anything better. Two years of channeling those concerns into a “resistance” movement against Donald Trump’s presidency has given the Democratic Party little to show for its efforts. After a pointless government shutdown, Nancy Pelosi's favorability rating was worse than Donald Trump's. Americans are tired of virtue-signaling and political hand-wringing.
Superbowl LIII was tired, too.
It has been over two years since failed running quarterback Colin Kaepernick brought an anti-police political message onto the football field and began sitting out the National Anthem. Few cared at the time, and life went on—until Kaepernick blamed his own career failure on NFL “collusion.” This Hillary-esque blame-shifting campaign sparked Kaepernick-friendly players join forces with him, which turned disrespect for the National Anthem into a nation-wide trend. Feckless and weak-kneed leadership from the National Football League exacerbated what could have been short-lived problem. And, as politics saturated the NFL, it invaded Superbowl advertising as well.
This year, however, the Superbowl was noticeably light on politics and heavy on nostalgia. As commercials referenced Friends, Sex in the City, The Big Lebowski, and other old TV favorites, it seemed as if advertisers assumed that sports fans were looking for a return to the simpler times in the 1990’s—when Bill Clinton was president, support for America was a given, and “woke” had not yet become a thing. Granted, several commercials were quite moralistic in tone, but rarely did they preach along explicitly partisan lines. Perhaps the advertisers were on to something.
Tomorrow night, Donald Trump has the opportunity to speak into a unique political moment. Partisanship fatigue has gripped America. Something similar happened during Bill Clinton's presidency, when the Republican opposition's willingness to use any means necessary to destroy his presidency backfired, and boosted his popularity. During times like these, Americans are ready to hear a message of national unity. If Donald Trump wants to improve his popularity after tomorrow's State of the Union address, he'll need to avoid cheap point-scoring and provide a unifying political message.