President Donald Trump opted for moderation in his first State of the Union speech Tuesday night, calling for bipartisan deals on immigration and infrastructure and urging lawmakers from both parties to “set aside our differences” and “seek common ground.” Republicans applauded the speech, but Democrats dismissed it immediately as a softer version of Trump’s nationalist, anti-immigration vision for the country.
The speech was another reminder of how polarizing Trump and his policies continue to be, one year into his presidency. “He came here as teleprompter Trump,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, told reporters after the speech. “Tomorrow we’ll see how his policies will be.”
Here are some initial takeaways from Trump’s address to Congress.
Digging in on immigration
On the surface, Trump’s rhetoric on immigration was less divisive than it has been in the past. But his core message — with warnings about criminal gangs and dangerous open borders — was similar to the hardline immigration stance that helped him win the 2016 election. Trump said it was time to “finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century.” To critics, that sounded like a thinly-veiled call for retrograde immigration policies that exclude minority immigrants and favor whites from wealthy countries.
Trump reiterated his call for a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, and are currently protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Republicans view the offer as a major concession to Democrats, one that many GOP lawmakers would have trouble defending to their conservative supporters back home.
It’s unclear, however, if that will be enough of an incentive to convince Democrats to support a four-point immigration proposal that also includes stricter border security measures — including funding for a border wall — and changes that would scale back legal immigration to the country.
Immigrant advocacy groups criticized the speech, and Republicans sounded as if they weren’t sure that Trump’s deal to save DACA would work. “He talked about the need for continued cooperation,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a brief interview after the State of the Union. “We’ll see how it works out.”
Was the tax cut really the biggest ever? It might not matter
Trump used the start of his speech to highlight his accomplishments in his first year in office. He took credit for a soaring stock market and growing economy, pointing to the number of new jobs created in manufacturing and other industries since the election. Trump also touted the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a significant victory for conservatives, and the passage of a tax cut earlier this year.
In speaking about taxes, Trump claimed that Congress “enacted the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.” That claim does not appear to be true. But to Trump’s supporters, it likely doesn’t matter. As Trump pointed out Tuesday night, he delivered on his promise to cut taxes. The technicalities of the law’s actual size and impact will likely matter less this fall, when Republicans head to the polls to protect the GOP’s control of the House and Senate.
Avoiding Russia, race and #MeToo
Trump never mentioned special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. He did not talk about race, after a year of making frequent comments seen by many as racist, and also avoided the topics of gender, sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement. Perhaps Trump and his team decided there was nothing to gain politically from wading into those issues. Whatever the reason for Trump’s silence, it stood out — as did his call for Americans to stand for the national anthem, an apparent reference to his attacks on NFL players for refusing to do so last year.
The power of storytelling
Unlike his predecessor, Trump’s speeches and public comments rarely include stories about individual Americans and the ways his policies impact their lives. Tuesday night was different. Trump used a diverse range of special guests to drive his political points home, borrowing from a State of the Union tradition that dates back to Ronald Reagan.
The special guest vignettes were some of the more powerful moments of the night — and some of the only times when Democrats joined Republicans in giving a standing ovation. Their stories weren’t subtle; Trump’s special guests included a welder from Ohio; the parents of children killed by the MS-13 gang; the parents of an American who was arrested in North Korea and died shortly after his release and return to the United States; and a man with a harrowing experience of defecting from North Korea. In Trump’s telling, they all reinforced his tough-on-crime, hardline immigration worldview. But that was the purpose, and it seemed to work.