Prior to President Donald Trump’s second State of the Union address, his team hinted that it would take on a conciliatory tone.
The president started on that path Tuesday, but then reality got in the way, making for a bumpy ride that veered from some nice moments to the combativeness we’ve come to expect from Trump over the last 2 years.
He opened with an emphasis on bipartisanship, saying there was a new opportunity in American politics if only we had the courage to seize it.
“Victory is not winning for our party, it is winning for our country,” Trump told a nation that is possibly just taking a breather before the next government shutdown – deadline Feb. 15.
While Americans don’t have high expectations for seeing results from these annual speeches, this one gave us a preview of how the president plans to handle serious challenges to a second term and even the rest of this one.
After the opening tip of the cap to unity, the president worked to establish an overarching theme of strength. Despite all of the theatrics that come with the $5.7 billion wall conversation and vows to keep Americans free from socialism, he realizes that his best shot at another term is economic strength.
Even though fact-checkers would argue the accuracy of some of the numbers used, the economy continues to get stronger, unemployment rates are at half-century lows, the stock market – after a short-lived correction – is still in bull mode. Of particular interest to the Sauk Valley, more than a half-million manufacturing jobs have been created since Trump took office.
But before business and the working class had a chance to feel hopeful in unison, the president swerved into full combative gear:
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States – and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Trump had thrown down the gauntlet and the thin veneer of unity quickly disappeared. The rest of the speech had some nice moments in which we saw a softer side of Washington. The president appealed to Democrats with promises for criminal justice reform.
The stories of Alice Johnson and Matthew Charles were feel-good moments that had the potential to unite – but Trump quickly jumped into immigration and took a shot at “elitist liberals” right out of the gate, trying to use class warfare to frame his argument for the wall:
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”
Trump followed that by saying that the working class pays the price for illegal immigration through fewer jobs, lower wages, crowded hospitals and schools, and increased crime.
He went on to touch on some other high-priority issues for Democrats – health care, prescription drug prices, infrastructure, and the fight to eradicate AIDS and HIV. Another unifying moment came when Trump introduced Grace Eline, a 10-year-old New Jersey girl who survived a cancerous brain tumor. He then talked about a bill that would provide $500 million to fund research for childhood cancers, which have historically been grossly underfunded.
The president wrapped things up with foreign policy issues – the area which is perhaps most divisive within his own party. There was little information on the trade wars that are making life more difficult for Midwest farmers with each passing day.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the planned troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, and our nation’s exit from the INF missile defense treaty. It is time to focus on counterterrorism efforts and try to bring peace after wars in the Middle East have claimed more than 7,000 lives, the president said.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said.
Stacey Abrams, in her Democratic response, touched on several of her party’s key issues that the president neglected. Abrams reprimanded Trump for the partial shutdown, then turned to student loans, gun violence and climate change. She contended that the working class continues to fall behind during this economic recovery – likely a key talking point for Democrats in 2020.
“The working class keeps falling behind and the Republicans’ tax bill has rigged the system against the working people,” she said.
Abrams presented an interesting sidebar to the address story. After losing last year’s race for governor in Georgia by 2 votes, amid voter suppression allegations, she has dusted herself off and seems to be a rising star for her party.
This address was not short on good news, but there were missed opportunities to build bipartisan bridges. Many Americans on Twitter preferred to focus on the president’s tie, Nancy Pelosi’s clap and the president’s interaction with the white-clad congresswomen in the audience.
While most Americans can agree that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” let’s not forget that this adage also applies to partisan political wars.