It was a historic State of the Union address – conducted the day after the Democrats’ chaotic Iowa caucuses and the day before the Senate renders its verdict in the president’s impeachment trial.
At times belligerent, at times emotional, Donald Trump delivered what will probably be his final speech to a joint session of Congress before standing for re-election in November.
Say what you will about it – about the whole evening – but it was memorable. Here are a few key takeaways.
Tensions run high
The president’s speech was bookended by two notable breaches of decorum. It began as the president handed the text of his speech to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: he pointedly turned away when she reached out to shake his hand.
Then, Pelosi declined to use traditional language that it was her “honour” to introduce the president.
After the conclusion of the address, Pelosi very visibly ripped up the speech text and tossed it on her desk. She would later tell a Fox News producer that it was the “courteous thing to do”, given her other options.
There were also moments during the address itself where tension boiled over. The president attacked Democratic proposals to abolish private health insurance in blunt language, saying he “would never let socialism destroy US healthcare”. He also engaged in an extended attack on the Democratic-run states of New York and California for their immigration policies.
When the president spoke about gun rights, a member of the audience – the father of a child killed in the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida – was removed from the chamber for shouting his objections.
Throughout the president’s speech, his lines were frequently greeted by raucous cheers from the Republican legislators, while Democrats sat in stony silence or howled in anger.
In his speech last year, the president called for a rejection of “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution,” touting “the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good”.
Such rhetoric was very much absent on Tuesday night, reflecting the open partisan warfare that has gripped the nation’s capital.
A re-election theme revealed
An incumbent president’s election-year State of the Union address typically foreshadows the themes of the campaign. If that’s the case, Donald Trump’s speech makes clear he’s going to bet his presidency on the state of the economy.
While growth figures for the past year have been modest, the president has presided over economic expansion of record length. At the top of his speech – the portion that will have the most Americans watching – Trump rattled through the litany of facts and figures that support his contention that times are good and will stay that way if he’s given another four years in office.
He cited deregulation, tax cuts and new trade agreements as his recipe for prosperity. In the campaign to come, expect him to make the case that a Democratic change of course will hit American voters in the place that hurts the most – their pocketbooks.
A pitch for inclusion
At the top of his speech, Donald Trump said that he was building “the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society”.
The use of the word “inclusive” wasn’t by chance. Throughout his speech, the president made repeated overtures to minority groups in America – groups that, according to polls, view the president with considerable scepticism.
Trump spoke of how he had signed criminal justice reform and funded historically black colleges and universities. He specifically noted the low levels of unemployment for “African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Asian-Americans”.
Among his guests were the last surviving member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black World War II fighter wing group, and his great-grandson. Trump announced that he was awarding an “opportunity scholarship” to a young black girl to attend a private school in Philadelphia.
When talk turned to immigration, the president called out Raul Ortiz, who he recently appointed to deputy chief of Border Patrol.
If the president successfully improves his standing among minority voters – and convinces independent voters of all stripes that Democratic accusations of racism and xenophobia are scurrilous attacks – his path to re-election becomes considerably easier. His State of the Union address suggests that he knows this very well.
A night of theatrics
Every president since Ronald Reagan has relied on special guest recognition as a means of highlighting a policy proposal or recognising the valour or sacrifice of noteworthy individuals. Even in the most acrimonious of times, these moments give a president a chance to solicit bipartisan applause and approbation.
In Tuesday night’s speech, Trump – the inveterate showman – took things one step further. Besides the “opportunity scholarship moment”, he also paused mid-speech to have his wife award conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and to surprise a military wife and her family by reuniting them with her husband, an Army sergeant who had spent the past seven months in Afghanistan.
“We couldn’t keep him waiting any longer,” the president said, in a moment that seemed plucked from script of a daytime talk show.
Democrat Bill Clinton used to be famous for his plan-heavy State of the Union addresses, which would bludgeon listeners with a laundry list of ideas and proposals of varying scope and prospects for success.
That’s not exactly Donald Trump’s style, but he did highlight a few priorities – none of which have much hope for success in a Congress beset by partisan gridlock.
He called more funding for vocational training in US public schools and for action to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, which prompted chants from House Democrats touting their already passed legislation that the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to take up.
When the president suggested that he was dedicated to ensuring health insurance always covers pre-existing conditions, the Democratic groans were particularly loud – a reflection of the fact that the president supports a lawsuit that would nullify the law that provides those protections.
Infrastructure spending, the white whale of bipartisan legislators for the entirety of Trump’s presidency, garnered widespread applause, as did yet another call for a US mission to the moon and Mars.
Trump also called for a law allowing the victims of crimes by undocumented immigrants to sue cities that do not co-operate with federal immigration officials and a ban on late-term abortions – both met by icy glares from the Democrats.
And that was pretty much that. If the president is going to campaign on any bold, new ideas, they’ll have to wait for another night to be unveiled.