Americans need much more than words to solve national problems

Americans need much more than words to solve national problems
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With the State of the Union address by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE, we saw that our political divisions are unlikely to be overcome any time soon. Even as the White House staffers presaged a speech that would highlight unity, the damage from years of heated partisan rhetoric is showing, with each side viewing the speech through its own distinct lens. Republicans in the base heard it as a forceful defense of his policies. Democrats in the resistance translated the words into more lies and provocation wrapped in theatrics.

Despite the scandals and crises of the Trump administration, along with the difficult realities of a divided Congress, there are fundamental issues that both branches of government need to address. The current divisive dynamic of our politics, however, is standing in the way of our leaders reaching consensus solutions to the many challenges the nation faces.


Any American who drives on our highways or flies from our airports knows that our infrastructure needs improvement and modernization. The ever rising prices of medicine, housing, education, and child care continue to squeeze our middle class while growing wages still lag those growing costs. There are many ways to secure our border while acknowledging that immigrants play a fundamental role in strengthening our economy and shape an integral part of the American success story.

Meanwhile, the world grows increasingly unstable. We must demonstrate our openness to free trade while holding to account authoritarians and economies that exploit the international system. We must foster American innovation and lead in cutting edge technologies of the future to secure our economic stability rather than engaging in harmful global trade wars.

We must work closely with our allies while ensuring fair burden sharing. When all members invest in our alliances, we are stronger together. As our adversaries seek to destabilize the world order to their advantage, they must be met with American and allied strength and resilience, which heralds neither endless military commitment nor total disengagement.

With another State of the Union in the books, it is useful to remember an important axiom about politics. The art of the possible requires that we focus on the 80 percent of issues on which we can agree, and set aside the other 20 percent. Today, far too much energy is consumed by issues that divide us rather than those on which we can find common ground.

Part of the problem now is that while a majority of voters lean towards one party or another, our politicians are chosen by a unrepresentative minority of extreme partisans. In midterm primaries, for instance, only 8 percent to 12 percent of registered voters participate from each party, and they are often the most passionate and ideologically rigid citizens. In presidential primaries, that number approaches a significant 30 percent participation.

With such a minority playing an outsized role in our elections, it is not surprising that politicians playing to their agitated bases focus on those 20 percent of issues that divide us. In the long term, we need reforms to our political system that will realign incentives towards the middle ground where compromise is made. In the short term, we must encourage our leaders to set aside permanent campaigns and find consensus solutions.

The State of the Union this week served as a useful reminder of the many challenges that our nation confronts. We need a fully staffed White House team confirmed by the Senate to manage the government rather than shut it down. We need a Congress that fully shoulders its constitutional responsibilities, restores its prerogatives, and sends common sense laws to President Trump. Our politics can be noisy, and that is okay. But without meaningful action and real solutions, the political theatrics we witnessed in the House chamber will amount to sound and fury signifying nothing.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and the director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington.