President Trump’s first State of the Union speech Tuesday night came close to a record in length. Here is a (slightly shorter) look at the key points and what they might mean for the months ahead in Washington:
Calls to unity unanswered
President Trump campaigned and has often governed on conflict, but began his second year in office with a call to unity.
“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” he said.
Democrats weren’t buying it.
As Trump entered the chamber — a moment when members of both parties typically applaud the president no matter who it is — Rep. Bill Pascrell, a North Jersey Democrat, defiantly waved a pocket copy of the Constitution in the air.
Most Democrats stood silently, not applauding at all. Among them were New Jersey Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker.
It was a rare sight. While it’s common for one side to sit on their hands during the speech, when the president lays out policy goals, nearly everyone cheers when the president first arrives, even if only for the office and the symbolism of the chief executive coming to “the people’s house.”
The House chamber tonight is more like a hyperbaric chamber–an isolated place where comity, outreach, aspiration are thoroughly cut off from the reality of the outside world #SOTU
— Mark Z. Barabak (@markzbarabak) January 31, 2018
The icy response continued through nearly all of the speech. As Republicans cheered and chanted, and one waved a red “Make America Great Again” hat, Democrats mostly looked like they’d eaten a tuna sandwich that had sat out on the counter for too long. (The few exceptions tended to be those like West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin and Alabama’s Sen. Doug Jones, who come from red states.)
In many ways, it was a reflection of the deep divides in our politics generally, around this president specifically and the feeling among many Democrats that Trump has fueled racial animus and degraded political norms in ways that go far deeper than any policy disagreement.
Democrats cheered at times, in particular for soldiers, first responders and the guests Trump introduced, along with some of his specific pronouncements. (Sen. Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, was among the few Democrats who stood when Trump mentioned standing for the national anthem; Booker applauded a call for prison reform.)
But for the most part Democratic reactions reflected the partisan divides that buffeted Barack Obama, and that have seemingly deepened around Trump.
— Kendall Cameron (@kn_cameron) January 31, 2018
Riding the economy
Trump devoted much of the top of his speech to positive economic news, and if Republicans have their way he’ll do even more of that for the next 10 months.
With Trump’s approval rating consistently stuck around 39 percent nationally — and Republicans facing potentially serious trouble in mid-term Congressional races — they are banking on tax cuts and continued economic growth to stem the tide.
Democrats point out that the economic surge began under Obama, but Trump has the largest megaphone, and used one of the biggest stages at his disposal to promote the gains he has overseen.
The problem for the GOP, is that the president’s daily megaphone — Twitter — often veers in much different directions.
While they liked his message Tuesday, the question is whether he will allow that message to sink in, or if the Trump whirlwind will just as quickly spin of in another direction leave the speech a distant memory by Friday.
As part of his call to unity, Trump offered what he described as a bipartisan proposal on immigration — including a broader path to citizenship for “dreamers” than Obama had initiated.
He called for fixing a problem that has stymied Congress for decades.
Yet Democrats grumbled louder and more angrily during that section than at any other part of the speech.
They particularly groused about his description of “chain migration” — a term many on the left find offensive. And when Trump talked about immigration it was often to highlight the worst of it: terrorist attacks and the MS-13 street gang. There were no examples of immigrants who had overcome difficulties to thrive in the U.S. or contributed to their communities.
When Trump said “Americans are dreamers too,” Menendez responded with an eye roll for the ages. (“Dreamer” is the term adopted for young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, whose cause Democrats have championed.) Some Republicans, meanwhile, think Trump is being too generous.
Trump used softer language and tones than usual, and didn’t throw a blanket condemnation on any one group. But to Democratic ears the warnings about terrorism, drugs and gangs made essentially the same point as his campaign rhetoric about rapists from Mexico: people coming from Central America are dangerous.
In the Virginia governor’s race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie ran hard on fears of MS-13 — and he lost. President Trump is using the biggest possible platform to play on those same fears.
— Matt Viser (@mviser) January 31, 2018
We’ll see how it unfolds but between opposition from the right for being too liberal and the harsh immigration framing tonight that clearly angered Democrats watching this speech … I’d say chance for a #DACA deal is currently lower than it was this morning
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) January 31, 2018
Trump’s other pitch for a big, grand deal was on infrastructure, with a call for $1.5 trillion in new investment.
But here Trump may again run into trouble from both ends of the political spectrum.
Republicans like the idea of cutting regulations to expedite projects — “Is it not a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for the building of a simple road?” Trump said. But many in the GOP are reluctant to put more federal money into investments.
Democrats want new projects to spur jobs, but they disagree with Trump’s approach of calling on states to come up with the funding, and warn this his approach may just result in tax breaks for builders.
This is perhaps Trump’s best chance for a major legislative victory in his second year, and the former builder loves big projects, but to get there he will have to thread a needle in the midst of a heated election year.
Russia? What Russia?
The giant cloud that has hovered over Washington — the various Russia investigations — went unmentioned.
It’s not surprising that the president wouldn’t want to bring up a reminder of that issue while he had a big stage all to himself, but it’s also not as if he avoids the topic when he blasts out his daily tweets.
And there are new developments swirling as lawmakers gripe that he chose not to impose new sanctions this week, and Trump considers whether to approve the release of a Republican memo meant to discredit the foundations of the various Russia investigations. As he walked out of the chamber a Republican Congressman brought up the memo, and the president said he would “100 percent” approve its release.
Yet for the portion crafted for the public, Trump put the issue on the back burner.
The #Me Too movement quietly speaks up
Trump didn’t mention it at all, but some lawmakers wanted to make sure the national backlash against sexual harassment was part of the atmosphere at one of the most-watched political events of the year. Many — and particularly Democratic women — wore black in solidarity with the movement, and at least two men from the Philadelphia area brought guests who had worked extensively on issues tied to harassment and sexual abuse.
Both of the guests, one from Pennsylvania and one from new Jersey saw a potential tipping point in the culture now that powerful men accused of harassment, including in Congress, have been outed — and have faced consequences. One of the latest was Rep. Pat Meehan, a Delaware County Republican.
“This is a new concept,” said Jennifer Storm, the Pennsylvania Victims’ Advocate and a guest of Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat. Assault or harassment victims, she said, are getting support, the public is believing them and there have been consequences for offenders.
That’s a sharp change from the past, she said.
“The scales are tipping a little and we’re finally empowering survivors,” she said hours before the speech. “It’s a novel concept that we’re believing them, that we’re elevating them.”
Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, came to the event as a guest of Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.). Like Storm, she was encouraged by the reactions she has seen to harassment allegations that have emerged involving members of Congress.
“Sexual assault and sexual violence are really predominantly based on issues relating to power and control, so it’s not a surprise to us as advocates and experts in the field when we hear of people in positions of power — whether they be in the entertainment industry or the political arena — abusing those positions,” Teffenhart said.
Perhaps all you needed to know about the political reaction last night came from two tweets from Southeast Pennsylvania.
At 10:25 p.m., this came from the Pennsylvania Republican chairman, Val DiGiorgio, of Chester County:
Biggest tax reform in 31 years, end the individual mandate. keep Gitmo open, modernize our nukes, end the sequester, path to citizenship for DACA, end chain migration, pressure Iran. Etc etc. etc! I can’t stand all the winning!!!!
— Val DiGiorgio (@vdigiorgio67) January 31, 2018
And exactly one minute later, from former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter:
.@realDonaldTrump has made the most meandering, vacuous, factless, pandering & divisive speech ever, which exploited some of the people who were recognized. This is like a campaign rally, not a true SOTU Address. No real policy, disjointed words & phrases for applause. #Sickening
— Michael A. Nutter (@Michael_Nutter) January 31, 2018
One of the elements that unified the chamber was Trump’s nods to his guests — including emergency responders who fought California fires or helped rescue people flooding in Houston, business owners, the family of an American student killed in North Korea, and a soldier who rescued a comrade in Iraq.
The most memorable may have been Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean who in Trump’s recounting lost his limbs when he passed out from hunger and exhaustion on a train track, had “multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain,” recovered while his brother and sister gave him their food and was later tortured by North Korean authorities.
He now lives in South Korea and rescues North Korean defectors.
As Trump acknowledged him, Seong-ho waved his crutches in the air. Long after the debates and political figures of the moment move on to the next topic, that’s a sight that anyone there will remember.