At the State of the Union, Republicans got the Trump they love — and Democrats the Trump they loathe

REUTERS/Win McNamee
President Donald Trump delivering his first State of the Union address.

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.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 01/31/2018 - 10:26 am.

    What has Trump done that is so bad?

    Is lowering taxes bad? Is encouraging companies to manufacture here in the USA bad? Is having a secure border bad? Is trying to stem the flow of drugs coming across Mexican border bad? Is having a merit based immigration policy bad.? Is telling the U.N. and NATO to pay their fair share bad? Is taking money away from foreign countries that hate us and try to hurt the USA bad? Is taking away the redundant regulations that have accumulated over the past 35 years bad? Is putting American first bad?is weeding out corruption at the top of our judicial branch in FBI and DOJ bad?
    I guess I missed all the bad stuff.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/01/2018 - 06:55 am.

      Yeah you missed a few things

      Corruption in this administration including the president, a party that chooses child molesters and sexual assaulters because they will vote a certain way, isolating us from our allies, using out most dangerous enemy to win an election, wasting billions on a wall that will do nothing but satisfy the prejudices of bigots, increasing the national debt, deporting people who have been here almost all their lives living productive lives, lies about the enemies of Trump that are swallowed by the gullible.

      That’s a few things I can think up quickly. The greatest danger is the threat to American democracy perpetrated by the Republicans through gerrymandering, voter intimidation, and collaboration with foreign powers. What strikes me is that for all the talk of how Russia influenced the election with their electronic attacks, no Republican has call for an investigation of that and a plan to prevent it in the future. That tells me that not only is Trump corrupt but that the entire Republican party is corrupt, willing to win elections at the cost of the institution of American Democracy.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 02/01/2018 - 10:12 am.

        Bill, do you have any proof

        of Trump colluding with Russia I don’t know of? Sexual assaults?.? Didn’t Hillary just have to apologize for doing nothing to a sexual harassment issue on her campaign?? Increasing National Debt, he’s been in office 1 year, it took Obama 8 years to double our national debt. Border security is a national security issue, actually one thing Federal Government has been charged to do. Who are our allies and what have they done for us in the past 10 years besides take our money and get the USA into bad trade agreements.
        I hear you complaining about you not liking Trump but I don’t see any policies that back your feelings? What policies has Trump enacted that is destroying America?

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/02/2018 - 06:20 am.

          You Forgot to Add

          “…while digging out of the Bush Recession” when mentioning Obama and the debt. GOP presidents run up the debt (it’s a fact, check the record) and then adults have to clean up the mess.

          And those bad trade agreements? Who twisted GOP arms to vote for them? Anyone hold a gun to their heads? No, they were not foisted upon us by our allies but pushed enthusiastically by Americans in the pocket of Corporate America. (Not that the last two Dem presidents are anything to brag about, they were both a couple of Wall Street boot lickers that I never voted for.)

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/01/2018 - 02:12 pm.

      Stem the flow from Mexico?

      If the idea is to stop or slow drug shipments that kill Americans, you and the president MAY be looking in the wrong direction and wanting to spend a million times more (taxpayer) money than it would take to put some of America’s most deadly drug dealers in prison (where I’m sure you and the president would agree they belong).

      “Drug companies flooded West Virginia town of 2,900 with 20.8 million pain pills

      “A congressional committee investigating the opioid crisis has discovered out-of-state drug companies shipped 20.8 million prescription painkillers over a decade to two pharmacies in a Southern West Virginia town with 2,900 people . . .

      “According to a Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study, the nationwide rate of deaths from opioid overdoses was about 10 per 100,000 people, but West Virginia is leading the way with 35 deaths per 100,000 people. At least 880 people have died in West Virginia in 2016 as a result of overdoses.”

      http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/01/30/drug-companies-flooded-west-virginia-town-2900-with-20-8m-pain-pills.html

      Notorious (Mexican) bad hombre numbero uno, drug dealer, Jauquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is sitting in a jail cell in New York waiting for his trial to start. If he’s convicted he’ll be going to prison for the rest of his life. I don’t know how many or what kind of drugs he and his Sinaloa Cartel shipped to West Virginia before he was locked up, but I’m pretty sure the totally legal corporate cartel that sold those totally legal 20.8 million opioid pills to those two drug stores in that WV town of 2,900 make El Chapo look like a rank, small time amateur.

      I don’t know about you, but when it comes to building that wall to stem the flow of drugs, I’d say it would be a whole lot cheaper, faster and way more effective to just look up the names of the companies that did the manufacturing and distribution of those drugs (and the names and addresses of the doctors who prescribed the bulk of them) and send out a couple dozen DEA agents to round up their board of directors and CEOs — their El Chapos — and put them in (no bail) jail where they could wait for THEIR trails to get started.

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/31/2018 - 12:42 pm.

    The minute Trump ended his speech, the leftist media started tripping over themselves to spin it off into the woods.

    According to CBS News, 75% of the people who watched it, approved of Trump’s performance:

    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/viewers-approve-of-trumps-first-state-of-the-union-address-cbs-news-poll/

    It’s pretty clear, that the Democratic party is far from mainstream America. Sad.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/31/2018 - 02:03 pm.

      Performance

      Well, of course he’s good at “performance”. He is just a TV celebrity, after all.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/31/2018 - 02:21 pm.

      Clear as a Bell!

      It’s pretty clear that the respondents to this poll were inclined to view President Trump favorably before they watched the speech. The respondents “were previously interviewed on January 29-30, 2018 to indicate whether they planned to watch the address, and if they were willing to be re-interviewed after the address.” If you scroll down in this survey, before the speech 52% identified as Trump supporters, with 16% saying they were “[s]omething in between” a supporter and an opponent. Their pre-SOTU views of Trump’s issues were favorable to him (contrast that with the last Gallup survey, which still puts him below 40% approval for the public at large).

      According to Variety, 40 million people watched the speech. That’s 12% of a population of around 325 million., It’s pretty clear that mainstream America had better things to do. Sad?

  3. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 01/31/2018 - 01:51 pm.

    When You Have Set The Bar That Low

    It’s not hard to get a favorable rating. Key might be “75% of the people who watched it.” Very few people I spoke with this morning watched it and that was in a group of about 20 retired Lutherans, some of whom who voted for him. Why watch something written for him by folks who think that he can just flip the switch? A year of race baiting, bullying people, threatening war, gutting environmental and consumer laws, outright lying, raking in money at his properties by selling access, and undermining the country’s rule of law isn’t going to be forgotten just because the guy read something for an hour and 20 minutes. Amazingly, Curtis didn’t try to tell us it was, “Really, really great,” which is the grade his hero must have given himself. Or maybe, “It was the greatest State of the Union address ever.”

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/31/2018 - 08:33 pm.

    I just hope Trump can ride the post speech wave without tweeting something dumb until the FISA memo is released. Walls are built one brick at a time, and he needs to let the mortar set up.

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