Five Takeaways From Trump's Speech
President Trump's first State of the Union address and the responses it triggered reflect a challenging political reality for 2018: Bipartisanship will be necessary, and also hard to come by.
After a year in which Trump was able to transform some of his campaign rhetoric into action through executive orders and a simple majority approval in Congress for legislative priorities such as tax reform, much of his second-year wish list will be complicated by a divisive midterm election year environment, a dearth of goodwill between the two parties, and a narrower Senate majority and process that will require Democratic support.
While the president called for unity and bipartisan action Tuesday night on immigration policy and an infrastructure package, his speech was short on new policy details and ways to bring about consensus, with some lawmakers less concentrated on the prepared text than on what he might say in the coming days.
“He said a million different things in the last year, much of which he never even followed through on or even tried to do,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. “He may get up and tweet tomorrow and have a completely different agenda than he had tonight.”
Like so much else in Washington, the speech was received on partisan lines, with Republicans cheering successes on the economy, taxes, and judgeships and most Democrats visibly repulsed by the president’s rhetoric on immigration.
Trump’s speech was also notable for issues it did not address, including the Russia investigation, the #MeToo movement, and longstanding GOP promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Still, here are some key takeaways from Trump’s inaugural State of the Union address:
A Roadmap for Republicans in 2018: The president and his party are preparing for a midterm election cycle with the wind in their faces and at the backs of Democrats. They have made clear in recent weeks that they intend to center their campaign message on anticipated successes from the tax law signed by Trump in December.
Trump gave them ample help in touting that signature legislative achievement Tuesday night. He name-checked some specifics of the bill, including the doubling of the standard deduction and the increase of the child tax credit; pointed out some of the corporations that have been citing the tax changes in handing out wage increases or bonuses; and mentioned that most Americans would likely see increased take-home pay next month.
The Republican tax law remains relatively unpopular in most public polling, but GOP lawmakers are convinced that once their constituents start seeing its effects -- and after a sustained effort at selling the law -- they can turn those numbers around. Trump will be key to that effort, and gave it a boost early in the speech.
He also highlighted his success at appointing conservative judges and at getting Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court, two achievements that are critical to his conservative base supporters.
Immigration: Members of both parties were listening carefully to how Trump framed the issue amid divisive and slow-moving negotiations on Capitol Hill. Before the president even began outlining his immigration plan, however, he focused heavily on MS-13 gang members and violence committed by some who have crossed the border. While that may have represented a nod to his political base, who care deeply about immigration as a national security issue, he lost most of the Democrats in the room before he even laid out specifics in his proposal.
“The things he said were divisive and inflammatory,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., calling the references to gang members “inflammatory.”
“No one in the world defends them,” Durbin said. “We’re talking about DACA and Dreamers, for goodness sakes. It’s two different worlds and he just seems to conflate both.”
Still, Trump described his vision for a solution for DACA -- the Obama administration executive order protecting those who came to the country illegally as children, which Trump rescinded. It includes a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants; an end to the diversity visa lottery; curbing family-based immigration; and investing heavily in border security.
“For over 30 years, Washington has tried and failed to solve this problem. This Congress can be the one that finally makes it happen,” Trump said. “Most importantly, these four pillars will produce legislation that fulfills my ironclad pledge to only sign a bill that puts America first.”
Some Republicans don’t back the pathway to citizenship -- Sen. Ted Cruz said after the speech he doesn’t support it -- but most were on board with the rest of the plan. Republicans were generally positive about Trump using his bully pulpit to outline it, but he failed to win over Democrats, who for the most part viewed the proposal as divisive and lacking in true outreach to their side of their aisle. Ultimately, it likely did little to change the status of immigration debates on Capitol Hill.
Other Key Policy Goals: The president campaigned on rebuilding America through infrastructure investments, addressing the opioid crisis, and reducing the price of prescription drugs. But so far, little progress has been made on those fronts and he offered few new details on paths forward.
Trump proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that would include a mix of federal dollars, partnering with state and local governments, and private funds. “Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process -- getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one,” he said in the speech.
But the administration has talked about such plans for the past year, and more deadline-oriented priorities like funding the government and fixing DACA are likely to continue pushing other policy goals further back on the to-do list.
Congress has yet to put the president’s infrastructure proposal into legislative text, and significant policy divisions remain. Republicans are generally wary of more government spending, especially after the tax bill added to the deficit. “The question is how are you going to pay for it,” Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, said on infrastructure following the speech. “You tell me how we’re going to pay for it and I’ll tell you what we can do.”
And while Trump could apply pressure to red-state Democrats to support his call, the opposition party wants a greater federal investment.
Trump earned bipartisan applause in calling to reduce the price of prescription drugs and saying he would direct his administration to take action. But he did not explain what that action would be or how he intends to fix the issue. “Prices will come down, substantially” he said.
On the opioid crisis, Trump invoked the compelling figure of Ryan Holets, an Albuquerque police officer. While on duty, Holets encountered a pregnant heroin addict seeking help, and the officer and his wife later adopted the woman’s baby, naming her Hope. Trump invited the couple as his guests for the address, and their compassionate actions were heartily applauded. Though the president spoke of the need to get “much tougher on drug dealers and pushers,” he did not offer updates on his administration’s efforts to do so or details of policy initiatives. “The struggle will be long and difficult -- but, as Americans always do, we will prevail,” he promised.
Democrats’ Reaction: Their negative reaction to the address was preordained. In his official response on behalf of the party, Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III spoke of an America that is “anxious, angry, afraid.” He cited some of Democrats’ key policy goals and outlined a positive vision for the party. But that came only after he attacked the president -- though not by name -- in stark terms.
“This administration isn't just targeting the laws that protect us; they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection,” Kennedy said.
Most Democratic lawmakers agreed. A large group -- including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- refused to stand to applaud the president when he entered the House chamber, or for any parts of his speech except those where he honored his guests. Several criticized his remarks as “divisive.”
“It was an opportunity to try to bring the American people together. I know it was a high bar for him, but he utterly failed at doing that,” Rep. Joe Crowley said. “Bringing the Congress together to work in a more bipartisan way? He just failed utterly.”
A few Democrats reacted favorably to the speech. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana -- both up for re-election in deep-red states -- stood and applauded much more often than their colleagues did. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who is running for Senate in Arizona, also applauded the president more often than her fellow House Democrats. Manchin said the speech checked a lot of boxes that were good for his state, and counted it as a relatively unifying message from Trump.
“He kind of put the olive branch out there,” Manchin said. “Let’s see if they take it and run with it.”
Omissions: Perhaps the loudest cheer of the night from Republicans, at least when it came to policy, was Trump touting the repeal of the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act.
“We repealed the core of disastrous Obamacare -- the individual mandate is now gone,” Trump said.
But that was the singular mention of the health care law in the entirety of Trump’s remarks. It signals that though the GOP failed to repeal the law last year, instead only cutting a portion of it as part of their tax measure, any further attempts to undo the ACA in 2018 are highly unlikely. Though repealing the mandate to purchase insurance substantially changes the law, large portions of it remain in place.
Also absent from Trump’s speech, as noted by some Democrats, was any mention of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election or administration efforts to prevent interference in this November’s midterms. Crowley, a member of Democratic leadership, called the omission “appalling.” But Republicans were likely breathing a sigh of relief that Trump left out any attacks on the FBI or the various investigations into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.