President Donald Trump addressed a newly transformed Congress on Tuesday night, delivering his first State of the Union address since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives last month.
But despite the visible change in the House chamber -- including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and dozens of other female Democrats wearing suffragette white to celebrate a record number of women on Capitol Hill -- Trump’s signature policy priority remained unchanged. The Republican forged ahead with his immigration agenda, calling on Congress “to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business.”
Trump spoke of a “moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens.” He warned of lawlessness at the country’s “very dangerous southern border” -- a “tremendous onslaught” of undocumented immigrants poised to pour in. And, once again, he urged Congress to fund a border wall.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working-class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” the president said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
His speech follows what was the longest shutdown of the federal governent in U.S. history, a dispute over Trump's insistence on spending $5.7 billion to build a border wall and Pelosi's refusal. The White House and Congress ended the shutdown late last month, giving themselves three weeks to work out a deal on border security.
If they don't, Trump threatened to declare a national emergency to fund the wall -- or to shut down the government again. Senate Republicans, however, warned the president before his speech that a national emergency declaration would be met with resistance.
Trump did raise other priorities that might find bipartisan support. He asked Congress for $500 million over the next decade to fight childhood cancer. He said he’s working to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Yet on the issue of infrastructure -- another subject with theoretical appeal across the political aisle -- Trump offered no details.
“Local leaders agree with the president on an important point: Passing a comprehensive infrastructure bill is not an option, it is a necessity,” said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Ind., who heads the National League of Cities. “That being said, for such a critical priority, infrastructure deserves more than a brief mention in the president’s State of the Union.”
In a sense, Tuesday’s speech was similar in style to last year’s State of the Union. It featured perfunctory calls for bipartisanship and unity but seemed unlikely to persuade Americans who weren’t already supporting the president. This time, even Trump’s rhetoric about bringing the parties together included unsubtle digs at Democrats.
“We must choose between greatness or gridlock,” he said, “results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.” He specifically warned against “ridiculous, partisan investigations” as Democrats are newly empowered to conduct oversight of him and his administration.
Some of Trump’s attacks highlighted the leftward shift in the Democratic Party during his tenure. He denounced “new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” which have recently been heard in state and local governments as well as in Congress.
“America was founded on liberty and independence,” he said, “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.”
But this admonition didn’t appear to trouble New York’s Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old democratic socialist who has quickly become one of the most recognizable politicians in America since her upset victory last year.
“I think he’s scared,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters after the speech. “He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing.”
The official Democratic response to Trump’s address came from Stacey Abrams, another rising star in the party, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial election last year to Republican Brian Kemp amid charges that the GOP suppressed Democratic votes. Speaking to the nation from Atlanta, Abrams referenced her electoral defeat and urged Americans to support making voting easier across the country.
“Voter suppression is real,” she said. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls, to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy. While I acknowledge the results of the 2018 election here in Georgia, I did not and we cannot accept efforts to undermine our right to vote.”
Abrams pronounced herself “very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems,” blaming Trump for the recent partial shutdown of the federal government, which she said “defied every tenant of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values.” She then outlined liberal alternatives to Trump’s vision on a litany of issues ranging from immigration to gun control.
“I still don’t want him to fail,” Abrams insisted. “But we need him to tell the truth and to respect his duties and respect the extraordinary diversity that defines America.”
As the night wound down, many of the nation’s governors weighed in on Trump and Abrams, with Twitter reactions that showcased the country’s sharp political polarization.
On the Republican side, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts wrote that “the Trump economy is helping deliver more opportunity for American families.” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey urged support for the president on infrastructure. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu praised him on paid family medical leave, school choice and honoring veterans.
“What an amazing Address,” wrote Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. “@realDonaldTrump owned this night. Democrats looked like petulant children refusing to support or clap for the most basic of human rights or American achievements, such as protecting the unborn or celebrating historically high job numbers.”
Predictably, Abrams was more popular among her fellow Democrats.
“President Trump may have spoken of unity tonight, but it was Stacey Abrams who embodied it,” wrote Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Even if Trump had unified the country with his speech, the effect would almost certainly have been fleeting. Throughout his presidency, he has maintained a habit of reading from polished scripted remarks only to generate chaos days -- or even hours -- later with incendiary tweets. That pattern seems sure to continue so long as he’s in office. As Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, quipped on Tuesday: “The speech giveth; but the tweet taketh away.”