When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., disinvited President Trump from delivering the State of the Union on its originally scheduled date, Jan. 29, the White House and Republicans in Congress brainstormed about what to do. Should Trump travel somewhere, such as the U.S.-Mexico border, and give his speech there? Should he show up at the Capitol on the 29th and demand to speak? Should he deliver the address in writing, as it was for many years of the nation's history?
Fortunately for Trump, none of those ideas passed muster. Then, when the partial government shutdown was temporarily resolved, the speaker relented and invited the president to appear Feb. 5. Trump agreed, which to some Republicans seemed like a surrender but was in fact a wise decision. Trump realized that there simply was no equally good alternative to delivering the State of the Union from the House chamber, with most of the United States government gathered inside and millions watching not only on the cable news channels but the broadcast entertainment networks, too.
That was especially true with the issue that sparked the shutdown — Trump's proposal for a barrier along some parts of the southern border — still unresolved. A House-Senate conference committee has a little more than a week to come to an agreement over the barrier, or the government could well shut down again. With both sides dug in, the State of the Union was Trump's best chance to make his case to the American people that the barrier should be part of a broader border policy. Trump had already tried a prime-time address to the nation, on Jan. 8, and failed to move the needle. The State of the Union was his last chance.
But it was also a chance to make a much bigger case — a case for the results Trump has achieved during his presidency and his agenda for the rest of his term. And Trump made the best of that chance.
The speech was big, not just in length — about 80 minutes — but also in concept. It had a structure. It had a message. It had passages to appeal to all Americans. It had passages to appeal to Trump's conservative base. And it had passages to appeal to opposition Democrats, who otherwise hated nearly every word of it.
The strongest part of Trump's speech that appealed to all Americans came after his "choose greatness" introduction, when he walked through recent progress in the American economy. "In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before," Trump said. Then the details: 5.3 million new jobs; 600,000 manufacturing jobs; rising wages; Americans off food stamps; low unemployment; low minority unemployment; low unemployment for disabled Americans; more people working (157 million); lower taxes; an increased child tax credit; soaring energy production; deregulation, and more.
At times Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sitting behind the president, didn't quite seem to know what to do. "Pelosi's face during Trump's comments about job growth could not have been more strained," tweeted Miranda Green, a reporter for The Hill. Indeed, Democrats didn't have much to say in response to Trump's economic record. They could quibble with the numbers — maybe it's really 4.9 million new jobs instead of 5.3 million, or maybe Trump was taking credit for President Barack Obama's accomplishments — but the fact is, Trump had a strong case to make for the performance of the economy during his presidency, and he made it the first part of his speech.
Immigration, of course, was Trump's appeal to his base. He offered some of the stories that Democrats hate to hear, of Americans who have been killed by illegal immigrants. But in a bigger sense, he stressed that immigration was a jobs issue, an economic issue, and ultimately a culture and class issue for millions of Americans. "No issue better illustrates the divide between America's working class and America's political class than illegal immigration," Trump said. "Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net."
"This is a moral issue," Trump said, in an indirect dig at Pelosi, who has called his border barrier proposal "immoral." Trump continued: "We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens."
Trump's strong pro-life message was another direct appeal to his most passionate supporters. But Trump also took care to include issues to specifically appeal to Democrats, issues such as lowering prescription drug prices, family leave, medical research, and criminal sentencing reform. It won him some muted applause from the Democratic side of the House chamber. But it likely won't do him much good in dealing with the House, given that some of the Democrats who applauded would also vote to remove him from office in a heartbeat. But he still tried.
Part of Trump's plan was to show how far the Democratic Party has moved to the left. A particularly deft way of doing that came during Trump's discussion of socialism. After noting the failure of socialism in Venezuela, Trump said, "Here in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."
Some Democrats expressed approval of Trump's words. But others remained stone-faced. Republicans in the room were almost beside themselves with delight as they watched those Democrats remain silently in their seats. Trump, those Republicans thought, had essentially proposed a socialism test, and a good portion of the Democratic majority failed it on national television.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the media star of the new Democratic class who also embraces socialism, was irritated by the president's tactics. "I think at the end of the day, it's not about an 'ism,' and I think that's exactly what the president is trying to do," Ocasio-Cortez told NBC News after the speech. "I think what he's seeing is that he's losing the war on the issues, and so he's going to try to go ad hominem, he's going to try to call names ... "
How did the public respond to it all? Quickie polls by CBS and CNN showed broad approval of Trump's message, but those unscientific surveys could have been skewed by too many Trump supporters to be statistically reliable. More dependable polls will come out later, but it's important to remember that public reaction to something like Trump's speech takes a while to gel. People who watched the speech need a little time to decide what they think about it, and people who didn't watch need to hear from others and watch news coverage to reach an opinion.
Still, it seems likely Trump helped himself on Tuesday night. He delivered a big, broad, far-ranging statement of his approach to the presidency and to the country. It was a deeply American appeal — he said the word "America" or "American" a total of 76 times in the speech. And there is a reasonable chance a lot of Americans liked it.