Presidents typically don’t compete for attention while giving the State of the Union address. But President Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday was sandwiched between the Iowa Democratic caucuses Monday and a final vote in the Senate impeachment trial Wednesday — two major storylines that cast a shadow over what is usually one of the biggest political events of the year.
Trump did not focus on impeachment or the looming 2020 race. The president cast his three-plus years in office as an unmitigated success, claiming victories in foreign affairs and domestic policy. Democrats booed Trump in the House chamber and criticized his record in the official responses to the State of the Union address, previewing the party’s message to voters in the upcoming election.
Here are key takeaways from the speech.
Impeachment was ignored, but still overshadowed the speech
It was an open question entering Tuesday whether Trump would discuss impeachment in the State of the Union address. In a roughly 85-minute speech, he never uttered the word impeachment or alluded to the ongoing Senate trial.
Nevertheless, the impeachment battle loomed over the speech thanks to the timing of the final acquittal vote. Senate Republicans wanted to finish the trial before Trump’s speech. But, they struck a deal to hold a final vote Wednesday after Democrats threatened to extend the trial even longer.
The timing did not allow Trump to take a victory lap before Congress. It also created awkward optics for the president. Trump delivered the speech with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seated directly behind him, in the chamber where Democrats impeached him for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress a little over a month ago. When he took the podium and gave Pelosi a copy of his speech, the speaker offered Trump her hand, but the president rebuffed the handshake. Immediately after the speech, Pelosi stood up and tore her copy of Trump’s speech in half.
Trump’s decision to ignore impeachment echoed President Bill Clinton’s approach to his 1999 State of the Union speech. Clinton also did not mention impeachment in his speech that year, which came while his trial was underway.
But the two presidents’ approaches to impeachment also differ in important ways. Clinton said he was sorry for putting the nation through an impeachment investigation. (He offered the apology before the House voted to approve articles of impeachment against him, weeks before his 1999 State of the Union speech.)
Trump, in contrast, has not expressed any remorse for seeking foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election — actions that led Democrats to launch the impeachment inquiry. Instead, Trump has attacked the investigation and subsequent Senate trial as a partisan hoax. He took a break from that Tuesday. That break likely won’t last long.
The 2020 race is about to take over
With the State of the Union over and the impeachment trial set to conclude Wednesday, the focus is shifting quickly to the 2020 election. Trump addressed Congress just one day after the Iowa caucuses, which kicked off voting for both parties in the primary cycle. Complete results from the caucuses have yet to be announced, but partial returns showed Iowa voters were split between several top-tier candidates.
With the caucuses over, the race has shifted to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary race next Tuesday. After that, the next nominating contests are in Nevada and South Carolina. The Democratic Party will be increasingly focused on the primary race, as voters decide who they think can best take on Trump.
On the Republican side, Trump has already started ramping up his campaign appearances. The president made a campaign stop in Iowa the week before the caucuses and is scheduled to hold another rally Monday in New Hampshire, the day before the primary. Trump and the Republican National Committee are also far ahead of the Democratic field in the money race.
Trump didn’t focus explicitly on his reelection bid in the speech, but he made a case for why voters should give him a second term by touting his accomplishments. Trump focused on the economy, including the Republican tax overhaul, his foreign policy achievements, and his appointment of nearly 200 judges to the federal bench, among other issues.
“The days of our country being used, taken advantage of, and even scorned by other nations are long behind us,” Trump said. He added, “In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline.”
At other moments, Trump appeared to criticize, at least indirectly, progressive Democratic presidential candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care,” Trump said. The remark echoed Trump’s criticisms of Democratic candidates’ proposals to create a universal health care program. (Both Warren and Sanders skipped the speech to campaign ahead of next week’s New Hampshire primary).
Whether his record is strong enough to win reelection remains to be seen. But the speech was a reminder that Trump has a record Democrats must contend with.
The party of Trump
Democrats rarely stood to applaud the president. Republicans were constantly on their feet to cheer Trump on. That has become the norm in State of the Union speeches in the modern era. But the different responses Tuesday seemed even more pronounced in a moment of deep divisions both within Congress and among voters across the country. And the Republicans’ support for the president Tuesday underscored Trump’s dominance with the GOP base.
At this point, with the 2020 election just nine months away, Trump’s hold on the party, its core voters and fundraising apparatus is complete. The Senate impeachment trial proved the party’s allegiance to the president. Just two Republicans — Sens. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins — voted to call witnesses. The rest of the Republican caucus stuck by the president, paving the way for an acquittal vote Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Trump made several direct overtures to his base. The most dramatic was awarding a Presidential Medal of Honor to the popular, yet deeply controversial conservative radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh.
Whether Republicans like Trump’s tweets and controversial rhetoric is no longer the point. The GOP is now fully committed to defending Trump’s presidency. The question is, will his record and popularity with the Republican base be enough to overcome low approval ratings and the stain of a House impeachment? Republicans are betting it will be. At this point, they don’t have another choice.
Congress won’t get much done this year
Recent presidents have typically treated State of the Union speeches as symbolic agenda-setters for the coming year, outlining policy priorities that both parties know have little chance of passing Congress while simultaneously touting their records in office.
In 2013, in his State of the Union speech just weeks after the Newtown mass shooting, President Barack Obama called on lawmakers to pass bipartisan gun control legislation. In his 1999 State of the Union speech, Clinton proposed increased funding for the Social Security and Medicare programs.
Trump has largely followed tradition when it comes to the State of the Union speech. He used his 2019 address, for example, to urge Republicans and Democrats to work together to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. After the speech, lawmakers from both parties pointed to infrastructure as a possible area for compromise, though few expected a deal to materialize (it did not).
On Tuesday, Trump likewise called on Congress to put partisanship aside and focus on moving the country forward on issues like education, infrastructure and neonatal care. But it’s unlikely Congress will tackle thorny issues in an election year when lawmakers shy away from taking politically tough votes. The best time to pass legislation is dwindling fast. Come fall, House members and the senators up for reelection will be focused on their campaigns.