President Donald Trump struck a conciliatory tone in his State of the Union address Tuesday, making an appeal for bipartisanship less than two weeks after presiding over the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
The president ditched many of his usual partisan attacks for loftier rhetoric befitting the seriousness of a State of the Union address. He suggested areas in which Democrats and Republicans could work together — like infrastructure and cancer research — and urged the country to unite around common goals.
Key moments from President Donald Trump’s State of the Union.
But Trump has done this before, including in his 2018 State of the Union speech, only to revert back to attack mode as he reacts to negative feedback from supporters or critical press coverage. And his speech also included his usual hardline rhetoric on immigration and a few political jabs, underlining Trump’s tendency to go on the offensive even in settings when he’s trying to hold back.
Is a bipartisan tone too little, too late?
Trump is facing increased scrutiny from Democrats, who now control the House, and potential legal and political threats from the special counsel’s Russia investigation — all as the 2020 re-election cycle heats up. He dismissed the Russia investigation with a brief mention early on in his address, drawing silence from Democrats in the House chamber.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said.
Trump warned that “ridiculous partisan investigations” could derail the nation’s economic progress.
Political leaders typically try to build goodwill in Washington, and then use those relationships with lawmakers to survive moments of crisis. Trump did not follow that playbook. He came to the White House as an outsider, and has prioritized appealing to his base rather than cultivating strong ties with the Republicans that will be key as he faces off with the Democratic-controlled House.
Republican lawmakers’ growing frustration with Trump was clear during the shutdown. The president sent mixed messages about what deals he would support and dragged out a fight with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi many in the party — especially in the Senate — thought he had no chance of winning.
Congressional Republicans are still sticking by the president. But this speech isn’t enough to erase years of tensions in the party, or the outright hostility some Democrats feel towards Trump. At this point, it’s unclear there’s anything he could do, short of drastically changing his personality and leadership style, to be fully embraced by the political establishment. Trump has never sought that approval. But he might need it.
Can two main issues carry 2020?
As a presidential candidate, Trump had two signature issues: immigration and trade. He also spoke more broadly about rebuilding the U.S. economy and strengthening America’s standing in the world. But he seemed most energized discussing immigration and trade deals, and that largely hasn’t changed since he took office.
“Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally,” he said Tuesday.
The State of the Union speech underscored Trump’s focus on immigration and trade going forward. It also reinforced the main political lesson from the government shutdown. Trump sees immigration in particular as a winning issue that helped him capture the White House in 2016, and he isn’t about to deviate from that strategy heading into the 2020 election.
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) February 6, 2019
The question is: Can Trump win again running on the same platform? Of course, his re-election campaign will look different; he’ll be running as an incumbent president with years of experience managing a wide range of issues. Tuesday’s speech included sections on foreign policy, and a broader economic message that went beyond trade.
But it’s telling the topics Trump seems most interested in haven’t changed much since 2015, when he rode down an escalator at Trump Tower in New York and announced his presidential campaign. It’s a remarkably consistent core message. Whether voters will buy into it again will be one of the major questions of 2020.
Female Democratic lawmakers of Congress, wearing white in solidarity, cheer as Trump mentions women and the economy.
Trump is dealing with a different political environment — starting with the chamber he faced Tuesday night. The House is the most diverse it’s ever been when it comes to race and gender — a fact Trump was confronted with most clearly when a sea of female Democratic lawmakers dressed in white jumped to their feet when he mentioned how women have benefited from a strong economy.
“You weren’t supposed to do that,” Trump said amid the applause.
It was a stark contrast to the applause by Republicans when Trump mentioned abortion, calling out abortion rights legislation in New York, which allows for the termination of pregnancies after 24 weeks for health reasons, and in Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam defended a law that would allow for more third-term abortions with a doctor’s approval.
Trump pledged in his speech to ask Congress to pass legislation to prohibit late-term abortion (though he did not specify at what point that might be), previewing the kind of 2020 campaign fight he may face with the Democratic 2020 nominees who broadly support more abortion rights.
Perception is everything
Trump does not miss many opportunities to tout his own accomplishments — whether they’re real, embellished, or imaginary — and Tuesday was no exception.
Even as he called for unity, Trump didn’t actually mention the word shutdown. He called the economic growth under his watch unprecedented, adding that it was “a boom that has rarely been seen before.” He went on to call the U.S. economy the “hottest economy anywhere in the world,” and touted job growth and unemployment numbers in superlative terms.
For the 2020 general election, the president's "numbers are weak across almost every poll," @costareports of @washingtonweek tells @JudyWoodruff. "At the same time, this is a White House that says, we have to stop a primary first." pic.twitter.com/NM8qdMOs78
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) February 6, 2019
Presidents from both parties have always used the State of the Union speech to highlight their successes, gloss over their failures, and make ambitious new proposals that rarely wind up being implemented. But Trump has been willing to make declarations of success that can’t be easily backed up by facts.
Trump offered some data points in his speech Tuesday, something he can omit in less formal settings. Some of the numbers he cited Tuesday were inflated. But proving that the things he said aren’t true isn’t really the point. The State of the Union speech is political theater, and in politics perception is everything. Repeating claims of greatness over and over helps make them seem real, and Trump understands this better than perhaps anyone else.
The speech was an effort to rally Trump’s base. It infuriated his critics, who dismissed his claims of success even before he had finished his speech. The reaction — at least among the portion of the public that uses Twitter — proved the public is just as divided as the Republicans and Democrats in the House chamber. In the end, you could argue that Trump benefits most from the partisan battle. If nobody can agree on who’s right, nobody can be wrong, and that includes Trump.
Democrats aren’t buying it
From their choice of Stacey Abrams to deliver the official response, to the outfits they wore, their stony stares and refusal to stand and applaud the president’s proposals, Democrats sent an unmistakable message Tuesday. The party sees few areas for compromise with the president, and little reason to try.
Perhaps Congress will pass a bipartisan infrastructure package, though neither party has made much progress on the issue. Perhaps Republicans and Democrats will find other unexpected areas for collaboration in 2019.Congress did come together at the end of 2018 to pass several major pieces of legislation, including the farm bill and criminal justice reform, as Trump pointed out in his address.
But the parties are far apart coming off of the 35-day shutdown, and that likely won’t change in the coming months. The divisions will likely only get worse as Republicans and Democrats try to negotiate over border security again; as special counsel Robert Mueller completes the Russia investigation; and, if they make good on their promise, as House Democrats launch investigations into the White House and Trump Organization. Democrats are also preparing for a long, contentious primary season that will take focus away from legislating in Washington. Both sides are readying for a fight, and now the State of the Union is out of the way.