Twenty-four hours after the first contest among the Democrats seeking to replace him in November and 24 before he will be formally acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial, President Donald Trump delivered his third State of the Union address to a bicameral session of Congress on Tuesday night.
It was a decided departure from Trump’s freewheeling campaign speeches and Twitter talk, a more measured recitation of his accomplishments in his first three years in office as he looks to run for and win a second term this fall.
Below, my initial takeaways from the speech.
* Partisanship at every turn: On the same day a new Gallup poll came out showing an 84-point gap between Republican and Democratic approval of Trump, the bitter divide in Congress – and the country – was visible everywhere during the President’s speech.
Trump snubbed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to shake his hand before beginning his address. (The two reportedly haven’t spoken in months.) Pelosi could be seen shaking her head – albeit only slightly – at several points during Trump’s speech, including when he said his health care plan would protect all people with preexisting conditions.
When Trump mentioned lowering drug costs, a group of House Democrats stood up and chanted “HR 3” in reference to the Elijah Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act. Shouts of “no” could be heard when Trump awarded conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Much more on that below.)
Given that the House had impeached Trump just more than a month ago, it’s not terribly surprising that partisanship pervaded the night. But wow was it thick – all the way to the conclusion of the speech, when Pelosi took her revenge by very visibly ripping up her copy of Trump’s prepared remarks.
*Economy, economy, economy: Previewing his planned reelection message, Trump began his speech with an extended riff on the success of his economic policy – declaring a “great American comeback” and proudly asserting: “The state of our union is stronger than ever before.”
Many of the stats Trump used to back up that argument – a 70% increase in the stock market since he entered the White House, record low unemployment for black and Hispanic people – are familiar to anyone who has listened to or read the President’s standard stump speech. As CNN’s Daniel Dale notes, many of Trump’s economic claims are heavily exaggerated.
Trump’s economic focus is a savvy one from a political perspective. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans approve of how he has handled the economy – a stark contrast with how his handling of issues like immigration and foreign policy is viewed.
If there was any doubt about the goal of all of this economic messaging, the chants of “Four more years!” from Republican House members and senators cleared that up quickly.
* The greatest showman: State of the Union speeches are always heavy on theatrics – ever since President Ronald Reagan brought Lenny Skutnik to sit in the gallery for his 1982 State of the Union address. But Trump relishes the dramatic and the provocative, and man, did he ever lean into both of those elements in this speech.
Limbaugh, the father of conservative talk radio, was on hand just days after announcing he was suffering from advanced lung cancer. Not only did Trump inform Limbaugh that he would be receiving the presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest honor for a civilian in this country – but the President had first lady Melania Trump, who was sitting next to Limbaugh, actually pin the medal around his neck while the assembled members of Congress looked on.
In the closing moments of the speech, Trump was at it again – surprising a military wife and her two young children with the return of her long-deployed husband. It was the stuff of daytime talk shows – but played out in this most formal of settings.
* Trump, defiant: Gone were any attempts at bipartisan outreach or proposals inspired by his political opponents. In their place were harsh and direct attacks on Democrats in the chamber who had previously voted for some version of the “Medicare For All” legislation that would eliminate the private insurance market. “We will never let socialism take over health care,” Trump roared in a direct challenge to the Democrats sitting before him.
At another point, Trump savaged those who support what he described as free health care for “illegal aliens.” In his words:
“If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left. But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens!”
There was no attempt at conciliation in either Trump’s proposals or his rhetoric. He was utterly defiant. And deeply dismissive of the Democrats standing – or, more accurately, sitting – against him.
* Infrastructure Week!!! In a speech with very few nods to common-ground issues, it was notable that when Trump mentioned the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure, both sides of the House stood for a bit of prolonged applause.
If only we could live every week like it was Infrastructure Week….