It was, by far, Donald Trump’s best, most optimistic, State of the Union speech—the kind of speech we can expect to see clips of in his re-election ads—the kind of speech that would be considered “good” even without the qualifier “…for Donald Trump” at the end.
Of course everyone didn’t think so—a number of Democrats walked out, and Nancy Pelosi pointedly tore it up for the cameras to see after he finished. But even with all that, if the goal were to reset the narrative and take advantage of the debacle in Iowa and the end of impeachment (without explicitly saying so), Trump was successful. He had a lot to work with, stressing a strong economy and low unemployment rate—and the killing of some prominent, high-value terrorists.
But he also also touted accomplishments on issues with broad, bipartisan appeal, such as criminal justice reform, paid family leave, and opportunity zones. These are feel-good issues that Trump (due to his penchant for distracting us with insane tweets) doesn’t get enough credit for.
Conspicuously, there was lots of outreach to African-Americans, both in terms of rhetoric regarding policy goals and achievements, and via special guests sitting in the gallery.
Coming on the heels of his Super Bowl ad, this was clearly not an accident. As The New York Times’ conservative columnist Ross Douthat put it in a mid-speech tweet, “Theme of the speech so far: Somebody at the White House thinks Trump can win more African-American votes in 2020.”
Whether Trump’s numbers crunchers really believe he can peel off African-Americans, or whether the real goal is to make suburban whites more comfortable with voting for Trump, we are witnessing what seems to be a significant moment: Trump is actually in the business of addition.
Think of it. For three years now, his strategy has been entirely based on energizing his base. For the first time, it seems, we are seeing a campaign that is attempting to add to the Trump coalition.
Not only was the speech an opportunity for Trump to do some outreach (as well as recount the usual laundry list of successes and promises), but it was a trap for Democrats, who had to choose between applauding the president they just impeached versus refusing to applaud talk about a good economy. This was basically a no-win scenario for them.
During one moment, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema was shown delivering a standing ovation to good news about unemployment, while Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand sat on their hands. Another example was when representatives including Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar reportedly did not stand to honor a former Tuskegee airman.
That’s not to say that Trump didn’t occasionally play some of his greatest hits. One gets the sense that Stephen Miller got to ad a few lines, toward the end. This created some contradictions. Trump’s talk about “building an inclusive society” was considerably undermined by his reversion to harsh rhetoric about walls and “illegal aliens.”
Though there was much less fan service than we are used to hearing from Trump, there was something for everybody, including fans of Rush Limbaugh, who was recognized and given a Congressional Medal of Honor in the gallery. This probably struck many as an intensely partisan move (imagine Obama having Michelle pin a Medal of Freedom on Al Sharpton), but the fact that Limbaugh was just diagnosed with advanced lung cancer made it more palatable.
Trump also appeared to take a veiled swipe at Bernie Sanders. During a section of the speech that included welcoming “the true and legitimate President of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó,” Trump declared that “Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”
One had the sense that this wasn’t just an attack on socialists from Venezuela, but also, a reminder that we have our very own from Vermont.
Still, putting aside that clever swipe at Bernie, and although he apparently snubbed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to shake hands, Trump somehow stuck to the script, resisting what must have been an almost irresistible urge to ad-lib about impeachment, his approval numbers, or the Dems’ Iowa disaster.
At one point early in the night, Republicans in the chamber broke out with cheers of, “Four more years!” It was something that I have never witnessed in all my years of watching State of the Union addresses.
Yes, it was a sign of our partisan times. But If Trump can continue to stick to the script for the rest of this campaign (a very tall order), it will also be prophetic.