WASHINGTON — President Trump seized the platform of his first State of the Union speech in a bid to reset his troubled presidency, deploying a raft of uplifting phrases and citing economic progress to make a case that he is fulfilling campaign promises and has ushered in a “new American moment.’’
The speech, which lasted more than 80 minutes, zig-zagged through the president’s favorite policy areas, including reducing legal and illegal immigration, rolling back business regulations to spur economic growth, and controlling the spread of international terrorist groups. Trump tied his recently passed tax cut legislation to modest gains in the economy, adding that “millions of Americans will have more take-home pay starting next month.”
There were few new policy offerings, but Trump’s rhetoric was notably more orthodox than usual, after a year of stretching the bounds of acceptable presidential messaging through name-calling tweets and often divisive statements.
“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American dream,” Trump said. “So to every citizen watching at home tonight — no matter where you have been, or where you come from — this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.”
“We want every American to know the dignity of a hard day’s work; we want every child to be safe in their home at night, and we want every citizen to be proud of this land that we love,” he said at another point.
The address comes at a key crossroads in Trump’s young presidency, and amid growing evidence that Democrats could make significant gains in Congress during the upcoming midterm elections. Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to probe whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials in the 2016 election, and Mueller has expanded the probe to include questions about whether Trump obstructed justice in reaction to those initial investigations. Domestically, the government was just briefly shut down after a bitter partisan struggle and another fight over immigration looms in the coming weeks.
Few of those realities intruded on Trump’s moment of live television Tuesday night, when he commanded attention unfiltered by the media he often derides as “fake news.” He dwelled at length on economic indicators, which have continued a strong recovery begun during Barack Obama’s tenure.
He also cited the nation’s response to a number of crises, including the Las Vegas shooting last year that left 58 dead.
“Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans,” Trump said. “The state of our union is strong because our people are strong.”
But while the rhetoric was uncharacteristically lofty, the policies — with the exception of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure infrastructure package — were the same set of goals that have divided Washington for the last year. The president, even while calling for bipartisanship, pushed for a restrictive immigration policy that even many conservatives think is too limiting. Trump also used the speech to highlight immigrant crime in a way that experts have repeatedly complained is discriminatory.
He also made sure to mention “proudly standing for the national anthem,” a line that received a long ovation from Republicans. The phrase was a reference to the ongoing war-of-words the White House has had with several prominent black athletes who have protested police brutality during NFL games.
“Americans love their country,” Trump said. “And they deserve a government that shows them the same love and loyalty in return.”
Several claims were also false or misleading, including one that said the president’s recently passed tax cut legislation has brought “tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses.”
While the tax law does cut taxes, and some corporations have cited the law as a reason to give employees one-time bonuses, experts consistently say the vast majority of benefits will go toward the most wealthy individuals and corporations.
Democrats tried to highlight such misrepresentations on Twitter with a hashtag
“The massive #TaxScam that sold out the working Middle Class, seniors, veterans, and our next generation in order to give their wealthiest donors and corporations a huge tax break and more loopholes to ship jobs overseas,” said Democratic assistant whip Tony Cárdenas, of California.
Still, it was evident Trump was attempting to strike a more unifying tone than speeches past. Gone was the ranting, imposing figure much of America wakes up to on Twitter, momentarily replaced by what could pass as a conventional Republican. The first year of his presidency has been marred by a number of high-profile, self-imposed gaffes around issues of race and gender, but Trump — at least in this moment — tried to recast himself as a president for all Americans.
“Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be. All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family,” Trump said. “I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, and creed.”
Reception to the speech mostly fell along partisan lines. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Trump has ushered Republicans into their best era in “30 years” and other Republicans echoed similar themes following the speech.
Buzzing throughout Statuary Hall, conservative lawmakers were particularly delighted because the president’s performance was free of the explicitly divisive, off-hand comments that have earned Trump condemnation even among members of his own party.
“After a decade of sluggish growth and stagnant paychecks, our country is back on the right track,” McConnell said in a statement. “Optimism is sweeping across the country, and the economy is finally gaining momentum.”
Democrats were, of course, less enthusiastic.
At least 11 members of the House Democratic Caucus, many of the black lawmakers, skipped Trump’s address in protest. Others, including several in the Massachusetts delegation, brought guests to highlight the human impact of Trump’s most controversial policies.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus who did attend wore sashes of African Kente cloth on the House floor. Women in the Democratic caucus wore black to support the ongoing #MeToo movement highlighting sexual assault and harassment. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and a host of other New England senators wore purple ribbons to support opioid addiction awareness.
“Words cannot and will not repair the damage he already has done,” said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont. “He can effectively deliver words on a screen, but it is what he delivers for the American people that matters going forward.”
One area of possible cooperation Trump identified was in infrastructure. As he did during the campaign trail in 2016, Trump called for a significant investment in roads and bridges, which earned applause from Republicans and Democrats.
“America is a nation of builders. We built the Empire State Building in just one year – isn’t it a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?” Trump said.
On foreign challenges, Trump attempted to distance himself from past administration, even as he said similar statements. Trump, like presidents before him, attempted to walk a fine line between saying he has made unique inroads to security challenges with North Korea and ISIS, while still acknowledging the problems were yet to be solved.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of the past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
White House officials have attempted to cast Year Two of the Trump administration as one that will focus issues that will gain bipartisan support, though Democrats have shown little willingness to work with him.
Trump’s speech focused on economic factors, but many Democrats pointed to other areas where Trump has had a significant impact in his year in office, including race relations and immigration.
Representative Tim Ryan, of Ohio, left his seat vacant to honor those “wrongfully targeted for deportation by ICE.”
He specifically highlighted the story of Amer Othman Adi, a Youngstown resident who was deported after 39 years in America.
“I’m sad that America, and the office of the president, has become a place where the politics of fear outweigh doing what is right,” Ryan said. “Amer deserves to be at the State of the Union this evening, representing himself and so many others like him, to show President Trump and congressional Republicans that the United States is his home. Instead his seat remains empty.”