President Trump attempted to turn what he sees as successes of his first year in office — tax cuts, deregulation and an offensive against the Islamic State — into a second-year agenda that he said will bring about a “new American moment.”
“There has never been a better time to start living the American dream,” Trump said in his first official State of the Union Address on Tuesday.
That optimistic tone underscored an appeal for bipartisanship on the two issues that could define Trump’s second year: Immigration and infrastructure.
Trump said he is “extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, and creed.”
In a pre-speech interview with news anchors, he spoke of ending decades of divisiveness in American politics, and how he himself ran for office as a businessman but has learned to “govern with heart.”
“Heart” was a recurring theme of the speech. Trump spoke of putting hands over hearts for the flag, hearts breaking for victims of violence, and the American hearts fueling a new building boom.
But Trump also took a tough stance on criminal gangs and on the war on terror, using his speech to announce that he had just signed an executive order to “reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.”
As with most modern State of the Union addresses, the Trump’s speech was both a credit-claiming victory lap and an agenda-setting list legislative proposals.
Trump once again touted the tax cut bill he signed into law in December that will “provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses.” He said he “ended the war on clean coal,” cut more regulations than any other president, and canceled trade deals that he says are one-sided and unfair.
“The era of economic surrender is totally over,” he said.
But the State of the Union speech isn’t just a report on the year that’s passed. The Constitution requires the president to give an annual report to Congress and “recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Trump has a weighty legislative agenda he’d like to get through a Republican-dominated Congress before November’s elections potentially change the legislative math.
“I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve,” Trump said. His plan would spend $200 billion on roads, bridges, airports, schools and other public buildings — which he says will total $1.5 trillion when combined with state, local and private money.
That plan, which will be sent to Congress next month, would also streamline federal permitting to have major projects approved within one or two years.
“Together, we can reclaim our building heritage,” he said. “And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”
More urgent: A self-imposed Feb. 8 deadline to address the fate of so-called “DREAMers,” the children of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and who will be subject to deportation under a Trump administration policy. Trump wants a series of other immigration changes — including $25 billion for border security, limits on family-based “chain” migration and an end to the diversity visa lottery system.
The government is operating on its fourth short-term spending bill since last October, and Democrats in the Senate have tied approval of a long-tern bill to Trump’s approval of permanent protections for DREAMers.
Trump said his proposal represents a “down-the-middle compromise” — leading to laughter from the Democratic side of the House chamber.
“In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration,” Trump said. “It is time to reform these outdated immigration rules, and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century.”
The speech clocked in at an hour and 20 minutes — the third longest on record, punctuated by frequent applause lines — and with Trump himself often clapping along.
Trump’s first State of the Union address presented a unique challenge for the unconventional president, who’s more accustomed to speaking in 280-character tweets and brief exchanges with reporters than formal address.
But the prime-time televised address also gave Trump an unfiltered opportunity to talk about his presidency without the distraction of daily headlines about the Russia investigation and White House intrigue. Trump’s speech contained no hint of those controversies.
Trump’s speech was organized around a rhetorical device pioneered by President Ronald Reagan — putting everyday Americans in the gallery with the first lady — and using them to humanize his presidency and his policies.
Trump’s guests included a welder who just bought his first home and is using tax cut savings to help finance his children’s education; parents who lost their children to the MS-13 gang; a blind, double amputee who re-joined the Marines after being injured in battle; and volunteers who did rescue work after floods, hurricanes, and wildfires.
“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. “So let us begin tonight by recognizing that the state of our Union is strong because our people are strong.”
Trump’s tone was perhaps as carefully measured as the substance of his speech. While Trump is often combative in his relations with Congress — even members of his own party — State of the Union addresses often extol the virtues of bipartisanship.
Democrats questioned Trump’s call for bipartisanship, given a year of intense party battles over items like health care and tax cuts.
“After a long and divisive year, many Americans were yearning for the President to present a unifying vision for the country,” said Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Unfortunately, his address tonight stoked the fires of division instead of bringing us closer together.”
And in the official Democratic response, Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, struck a defiant tone.
“Bullies may land a punch,” says Kennedy in a prepared speech released by Democratic leaders. “They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”
Indeed, the State of the Union address has become increasingly polarizing in recent years, with members of the president’s party applauding enthusiastically and the opposition party largely sitting on its hands.
Trump’s speech drew a deeply partisan reaction from beginning to end. Most Democrats dressed in black and wore other symbolic items as a show of dissent – including members of the Congressional Black Caucus who donned Kente cloth scarves and ties to protest Trump’s alleged remarks calling certain African countries “shitholes.”
On the Republican side of the chamber, many GOP women wore red or blue — an effort to create a patriotic pastiche.
There were groans and even hissing from Democrats to some of Trump’s most contentious lines — including to his argument that “open borders” have allowed “drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans.”
The few moments of bipartisanship came when Trump talked about lowering drug prices and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. And the one moment that catapulted Schumer out of his seat? When Trump touted his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
The Trump campaign further politicized the event Tuesday, turning the official speech into a fundraising opportunity. In a solicitation, the campaign told supporters that if they give as little as $1, their names would appear on a live stream on the campaign’s website.
“It’s not about just one of us,” the campaign’s fundraising pitch says. “It’s about ALL of us. Which is why your name deserves to be displayed during Tuesday night’s speech.”