Updated at 12:50 p.m. ET
As a rule, presidents want to have it both ways in their annual State of the Union addresses.
They want to “reach out to all Americans” with uplifting appeals to unity and bipartisanship. But they can’t resist pumping up the pep rally for their party and most loyal supporters.
If that applies to all presidents in all seasons, it surely applied Tuesday night to President Trump, who has found the halfway point of his term to be fraught with political travail.
The president’s address had been delayed a week because of a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government, a shutdown for which polls showed he bore the burden of blame. His approval ratings in general had slumped in the new year, and a phalanx of investigations is moving inexorably forward in Congress as well as in the justice system.
While he projected his usual triumphant bravado Tuesday night, Trump was also confronting for the first time a chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition. The newly enlarged ranks of House Democrats were quite visibly arrayed before him. Especially hard to miss were the scores of women among them wearing white to celebrate the centenary of Congress passing the constitutional amendment that empowered women to vote.
The president confronted this new challenge with a version of the familiar State of the Union strategy. He began with an appeal for unity, an appeal much foreshadowed by pre-speech White House briefings. He also praised America (“We do the incredible, we defy the impossible … Together we represent the most extraordinary nation in all of history”), recalled its heroics in space travel and World War II, pledged to eradicate HIV in a decade and announced new spending against childhood cancer.
The speech was so full of applause lines, emotional introductions of guests and exhortations of patriotism that it lasted nearly an hour and a half. It was even longer than last year’s address, landing third on the all-time list for length (behind two of Bill Clinton’s entries). At several points, the clapping and cheering segued into chants of “USA! USA!” from the Republican side of the chamber.
(At another point, when the president acknowledged the record number of women elected to Congress in November, the Democratic side erupted in chants of “USA! USA!”)
Understandably enough, the president praised the soaring heights of the economic recovery, which has been peaking since he took office. He made a special point of citing the record low unemployment numbers for black and Hispanic workers.
In a similar vein, he celebrated passage of the First Step Act, a bipartisan effort at reforming the criminal justice system. He introduced the well-publicized Alice Johnson, who got out of jail last year under the new law after having her case brought to Trump’s attention by Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
The president also renewed his call for a paid version of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, a favorite issue for his daughter Ivanka (as criminal justice reform was for her husband, Jared Kushner). The Step Act got far more attention than the Republican tax reform that took effect last year and rated just two sentences Tuesday night.
The last Congress also managed to pass bills attacking the opioid crisis, reordering the Department of Veterans Affairs and reauthorizing the nation’s farm programs. If we could do those things together, Trump implied, anything was possible.
There could be a deal to restrain prescription drug prices, he said, or to restore the nation’s aging infrastructure.
“Victory is not winning for our party,” he said, “victory is winning for our country.”
But, like other presidents before him, Trump alternated his open-handed gesture with occasional hard jabs at the opposition.
The move away from peace and harmony came abruptly after the traditional declaration that “the state of our union is strong.” Trump pivoted to saying the “only thing” that could stop “the economic miracle” would be “foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.”
To be sure, the new lineup of Democratic committee chairs has already begun probing a range of activities related to Trump and his administration. But the larger shadow over his White House is cast by the investigation led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, who was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Both are lifelong Republicans.
From that point on, the speech’s primary emphasis was on the agenda the president himself wants to pursue — with or without the cooperation of the opposition. And no part of that agenda seemed to matter nearly so much as his vision for a wall with Mexico.
Much of the speech was devoted to depicting the Southern border as a threat to national security — a gateway for crime, drugs and illegal immigration. The talk of “massive caravans” sweeping northward was back from the days of the shutdown. Horrific crimes allegedly committed by members of MS-13 were detailed. Trump introduced a woman in the gallery whose parents were killed, he said, by an illegal immigrant.
As there has been little sign of movement on either side of the wall debate, it now seems likely the Feb. 15 deadline for a deal will not be met. Many expect that will trigger a presidential declaration of a national security emergency, which Trump says would enable him to build the wall with funds appropriated for other purposes.
But the wall was not the only gauntlet Trump tossed to the members of Congress. He also called for a new law limiting abortions late in a pregnancy, excoriating the New York Legislature for having “cheered with delight the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from their mother’s womb moments before birth.”
Trump also took a shot at embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for remarks he made in a radio interview about abortion late in a pregnancy. Northam is a physician.
The lurid descriptions recalled some of the language Trump had used in debating Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2016. And the president benefited from the connection that helped him back with white evangelical voters that November. No other social or cultural identifier is more likely to mark a Trump supporter in 2019.
Trump reached out to these backers twice in discussing his foreign policy, talking about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the “true capital” of Israel. Later, he spoke of his pressure on Iran in terms of its importance as a threat to Israel. While support for Israel is a plus for many American Jews, it is also highly important to many evangelical Christians.
One other aspect of foreign policy did arise near the end of the speech. The president noted the power struggle in Venezuela and denounced the government of President Nicolás Maduro, “whose socialist policies have turned the richest country in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.” Trump followed this with a vow: “We are born free and we will stay free. Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
That provided a moment for TV cameras to seek out Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom call themselves democratic socialists. It also provided several applause lines that brought the Republican section to its feet, cheering and once again chanting “USA! USA!”
Begun in sunny weather and smiles, the speech descended into a dark and stormy midsection. But the finish was full of rosy rays of sunset glory. The closing phrases were somewhere between the “Pledge of Allegiance” and the “Lord’s Prayer.”
“And we must always keep faith with America’s destiny, that one nation, under God, must be the hope and the promise and the light and the glory among all nations of the world!”
Shortly after the speech, the TV networks carried brief remarks by Stacey Abrams, who was giving the official response of the Democratic Party. Abrams, 45, lost a close race for governor in Georgia in November. She was the first African-American woman to give a party’s official response to the SOTU, as well as the first person to do so who was not a federal official or statewide officeholder. She said the shutdown had been “a stunt engineered by the president of the United States,” but spent most of her time describing her own story and focusing on voting rights.
Abrams shared responding duties with this year’s Spanish-language responder, Xavier Becerra. A former congressman, Becerra is now the attorney general of California and plans to sue if Trump declares a national security emergency in pursuit of his wall.