In a lot of ways, President Donald Trump’s first official State of the Union was vintage Trump: He talked viscerally of the imminent dangers of gangs, drugs, and criminals, called for a big wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and advocated “rebuilding” America’s nuclear weapons arsenal. From his podium, Trump even waded into the past year’s culture wars, winking toward protests by professional athletes by declaring “we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
But if the president’s big speech to Congress was something like a greatest hits album, the volume seemed a little softer, the tone a little subtler, and added in were some new tracks: While Trump was forceful in advocating his trademark positions, he called for Democrats and Republicans to join together and compromise on the big issues facing Washington this year, from immigration to infrastructure to the opioid crisis.
Trump also took a victory lap for the achievements of his first year in office — namely, a sweeping package of tax cuts that he boasted is sparking the U.S. economy to resurgence. “This is our new American moment,” Trump declared.
This State of the Union, then, was music to the ears of Republicans, who gave their president standing ovations 75 times over the course of his 80-minute speech, and favorable marks afterward for highlighting shared values and common goals in American politics.
But the address struck jarring and off-putting notes to Democrats, who had a hard time reconciling Trump’s rhetoric about unity and compromise with Trump himself — who, over the past year, has often led the charge in attacking enemies and scuttling deals. First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz, in a statement after the speech, even said it was impossible to respond to Trump’s address “as if it is a normal State of the Union.”
The president’s party and the opposition always differ in their reactions to a State of the Union. But it was as if Minnesota’s Republicans and Democrats heard two different speeches on Tuesday night, making prospects for compromise in 2018 — an election year that has already seen a government shutdown — even dimmer.
A ‘fantastic job’
If Trump’s speech didn’t unify red and blue, it did elicit a uniformly positive reaction from Republicans, including two members of the Minnesota delegation who have often differed in their approach to Trump: Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer.
Paulsen, who says he did not vote for Trump in the 2016 election and has avoided saying much about the president during his first year in office, and Emmer, the first member of the delegation to endorse Trump, agreed that the president gave a positive, and unifying speech.
“I think he did a fantastic job,” Emmer said. “He struck on exactly what he got elected on.”
Paulsen said the address was “very measured, it was balanced, and very insightful. … I thought the president talked in themes that everyone can get behind.”
The 3rd District Republican congressman first mentioned economic growth and opportunity among Trump’s key themes, and the speech was long on that talk: The first portion of Trump’s address focused heavily on the positive economic effects of the tax plan and of his administration’s economic policies. His remarks on job creation, a 45-year low in unemployment, tax cuts, and the expansion of tax credits all received sustained, enthusiastic applause from the GOP side of the aisle.
But the White House pitched this address as a unifying one, and it was expected that the president would use it to call for compromise in Congress, particularly on an immigration package — which remains difficult to negotiate and led to a shutdown earlier in January — and on infrastructure, an area where Democrats have long believed they could work with Trump to secure a big-dollar package to rebuild road, rail, and air transportation. During the speech, Trump raised eyebrows by calling for a $1.5 trillion package on infrastructure, the biggest number his administration has yet put forward.
Trump’s tone, however, was couched in language that his base loved, but may scuttle bipartisan progress. In one of the most pointed moments of the night, in speaking about the need for an agreement on immigration and the fate of the 800,000 undocumented young immigrants called Dreamers, the president said, “I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color, religion, and creed. … Because Americans are Dreamers too.” That last line elicited audible groans from the Democratic side of the chamber.
Paulsen maintained that Trump is “definitely setting that tone” for a compromise, “that everyone is not going to get everything they want, and that both sides are going to have to come together.”
Both Republicans thought Trump’s address put him on solid footing as he heads into his second year in office. “I thought he was trying to push the reset button with people on both sides of the aisle,” Emmer said. “It puts everyone in the House and Senate, regardless of party designation, it puts them on notice. He’s ready to compromise and work with everyone.”
Democrats: Trump all talk, a lot of it bad
On Tuesday, Democrats did not see in Trump a president who is really interested in compromise and in working with them. Coming off the heels of a politically bruising year, Democrats saw a familiar Trump — someone whose default is divisiveness, and someone who talks a big game but rarely backs it up, if ever.
Eighth District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan said the speech was “full of a lot of good promises, but they all seem to be rather short-lived from our experience with him.” The congressman used the example of infrastructure, an important topic for him and his vast, largely rural district.
“He presents a good tone: Let’s rebuild American infrastructure, it’s fundamental to good paying jobs and growth and business creation; but $200 billion doesn’t do it,” Nolan said, referring to the reported commitment of public funds the White House has outlined, which he believes is not enough to secure $300 billion, let alone $1.5 trillion, in total investment.
“The reality of what he proposes is totally out of step with the tone that he presents,” Nolan said.
It was Sen. Tina Smith’s first time attending the State of the Union, and though she was not on Congress’ front lines for the first year of the Trump presidency, she made similar points as her colleagues. The senator said things that Trump talked about — such as infrastructure and battling the opioid crisis — are all things that people want, but that he has not shown he can deliver.
“Words are easy,” Smith said. “It can’t be about the words that come out of his mouth, it has to be about actions that match the words. … What I didn’t hear from the president was anything about what he was going to do to move those things forward.”
But Smith also acknowledged the power of Trump’s words, and their potential to undermine future prospects for bipartisan achievement — and undermine the country. “He seemed bent on dividing Minnesotans,” she said. Referring to the “Dreamers” remark, she said “to turn that phrase in a way was symbolic of his willingness to look for opportunities to divide us when we ought to be pulling together.”
In a statement, Rep. Walz quickly summed up what many Democrats were thinking after the speech. “What we heard tonight from the President was, as always, all talk,” he said. “And I have no doubt it will be different by tomorrow morning.”
Promise and reality
In Trump’s speech Tuesday night, there were echoes of his address last March to a joint session of Congress — the first time he appeared in this setting to outline his priorities. That speech was unexpectedly bipartisan in tone, leaving Democrats pleased, somewhat bewildered, but a little more hopeful Trump was someone who they could work with. It also reassured Republicans that Trump could be “presidential” and act as a govern, not just disrupt, Washington.
In the ensuing year, Trump proved nearly impossible for Democrats to work with, and the long-awaited presidential pivot many Republicans had hoped for never came.
Paulsen acknowledged the tumult that the president has wrought over the last year, particularly through his Twitter feed, which he has used to attack his political enemies, from top officials at the FBI to Democratic and Republican politicians — some of whom, seated before him Tuesday, have been assigned presidential nicknames like “Liddle’ Bob Corker” and “Pocahontas.”
The address, Paulsen said, was “very different than the tweets and other components he usually uses to communicate. This is a governing component that I think the country wants and needs.”
“I thought the speech was a lot like the speech a year ago,” he continued, “shifting in this measured, governing mode. I want to see him continue to do that, and do the follow-through.”
After last year’s speech, Nolan remarked that he liked what Trump had to say — he just didn’t trust it. In the year that’s followed, that mistrust has been strengthened, making it unlikely Democrats will ever buy what Trump is selling at any State of the Union, no matter how nice it sounds.
“There’s a separation between his promise and his reality, and the unreliability of his word,” Nolan said. “He’s been on every side of every issue. It’s not constructive. It’s not helpful.”