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State of the Union: Big chasms, few bridges

The State of the Union poses an ideal moment to bring a divided nation together. It’s a new year, a fresh start, an election behind us. Past presidents have used such occasions not simply to outline their agendas but to reach out across the aisle. Sometimes successfully, often not. It’s unfortunate that the most memorable such moment of recent years was the outburst of “You lie” by Joe Wilson, a South Carolina congressman, aimed at then-President Barack Obama a decade ago. Mr. Wilson later apologized.

President Donald Trump would be wise to seek common ground with the Democrats in Congress, particularly the House majority. White House staffers have suggested his speech will go that route and even leaked a passage that sounds uncharacteristically charitable (and far better crafted than his customary tweets): “We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”

Perhaps that line will be there. It certainly sounds good. But it’s one thing to toss off such a remark and quite another to back it up. Seeking a fresh start should not be viewed as radical. After all, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found a majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and Mr. Trump’s own approval ratings are in the tank. But the self-styled “counter-puncher” president isn’t keen on compromise, particularly if it means angering his base or conservative pundits on Fox News or elsewhere. And on Sunday night, he was back at it again, posting on Twitter that “Dems do nothing” about border security and “if there is no Wall, there is no Security.” Not exactly olive branch material.

In reality, Americans don’t really support building a wall. And most recognize that border security, while important, is far from the nation’s most pressing need. Mr. Trump’s insistence that there’s a crisis at our southern border is not just patently false — as the government’s own statistics tracking detentions and arrests clearly show — it’s an effort to instill fear and intolerance. His anti-immigrant rhetoric has stirred his most ardent supporters but left much of the nation cold. Uniting a country requires thinking bigger than what plays well in deep red states with xenophobic tendencies.

What should President Trump tell the nation? That’s easy. He should walk in the footsteps of the men who stood at the lectern before him with an appreciation of rich history and precedent and assure us that he believes in the United States of America, that he understands that free speech and free press leads off the Bill of Rights because the founders understood that made us stronger, not less safe. He would tell Americans that he will defend our democratic institutions including from the threat of foreign interference in elections. He would remind members of Congress that we are a nation of immigrants and that we have a duty to help refugees, to “fix” our broken immigration system not to reduce the number of people who are on a path to citizenship but to make the process rational and constructive.

Immigration isn’t to be feared, he would say, it is a resource to be harnessed, an engine to grow the U.S. economy, to help bring stability to Latin America and to bring new ideas, artistry and energy to our culture as it has always done. He would not have to abandon his plans for a wall but he would have to give them proper context. He would support tightening crossing points to check for drugs, he would embrace technology and manpower, and he would abandon threats of shutting down the government (a lose-lose proposition if ever there was one) or using emergency authority to dispatch troops in a hapless wall-building quest.

That’s not all President Trump should say. He might also talk about his respect for differences of opinion, that he intends to strengthen bonds with traditional allies, not abandon them, that he perceives a growing problem with the nation’s income-gap, that he recognizes man-made climate change is real, that he is no fan of Vladimir Putin and that we need better schools and greater government accountability. And finally, he would say that all these things are shared values. That it doesn’t matter whether you are a Democrat or a Republican. That we are bound to disagree but we need not be disagreeable. And, in a gesture of statesmanship, he would resolve to stop telling flagrant lies (or perhaps just stop posting them on Twitter).

Are any of these things likely? Not at all. But there’s nothing wrong in harboring generous thoughts of those who so constantly disappoint you. It’s a start on the long road toward civility.

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