In his first State of the Union address, the president positions immigration and infrastructure proposals as unifying initiatives.
In his first State of the Union address to Congress, President Donald Trump struck an upbeat, optimistic tone and promised to move forward with a “clear vision and a righteous mission — to make America great again for all Americans.”
Much of the speech sought to paint a portrait of a country moving ahead in a united fashion to ensure Americans a better political and financial future — a contrast in tone to the president’s often divisive rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign where his opponents received derogatory nicknames.
But Trump focused largely on familiar policy proposals, including on immigration and infrastructure, which he positioned as common-sense, mainstream ideas — even though Democrats have been cool or outright rejected them.
Nowhere has that been clearer than in the immigration plan outlined last week by the White House, which Trump said “generously” outlines a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, twice as many as are currently covered under President Barack Obama’s DACA program. He committed to ending the visa lottery system and eliminating immigration preferences for extended family in favor of what he described as a merit-based system, ideas Democrats say upend the tradition of immigration laws in this country.
“It is time to reform these outdated immigration rules, and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century,” Trump argued.
But the immigration policy details spoke to the hawkish side of Republican party — breaking with the speech’s theme of bipartisan cooperation.
Trump also flicked at promises to lower the cost of prescription drugs and tackle opioid addition, workforce development, and prison reform. The latter two policy initiatives have been championed by Trump’s daughter and son-in-law Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
In a nod to foreign policy and recent provocations against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the speech also said that “as part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.”
Much of the latter part of the speech was devoted to illustrating — through personal stories — the brutality of the North Korean regime. Trump introduced both the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American university student who returned to the U.S. in a coma and eventually died after a long detention in North Korea, as well as Ji Seong-ho, an amputee who escaped North Korea as a child after being tortured by authorities.
These stories seemed intended as rebuttals to anyone who questioned Trump’s recent aggressive stances against North Korea, or his promise that the U.S. Would rebuild and modernize its nuclear arsenal in response.
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position,” Trump said. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”
Trump devoted the first part of the speech to the historic tax legislation passed in December along a party-line vote. He spoke fondly of its details, including a doubling of the child tax credit and an increase in the standard deduction; and of a skyrocketing stock market that he said has helped pad Americans’ 401(k) accounts, pensions, and college savings plans.
“The era of economic surrender is over,” he declared.
Absent from Trump’s speech was any direct mention of his predecessor — even though much of Trump’s work over the past year has involved undoing Obama’s legacy, or defining himself in contrast to his 2016 campaign rival, Hillary Clinton.
Trump also made no mention of Russia or the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, a probe that has expanded to include the question of whether Trump or people close to him obstructed justice by firing former FBI Director James Comey.
The format of the speech played to Trump’s strengths by blending policy promises and prescriptions with stories of real Americans affected by the changes his administration has made — in an attempt to turn a prime-time speech into one slightly more connected to average Americans.
The White House spent days building up anticipation for the speech — telegraphing the broad themes to journalists and surrogates through fact sheets, talking points, background briefings and on-camera interviews with top administration officials — as is the typical practice for any typical White House, particularly one helmed by a such media-obsessed leader.
The prep work largely centered on the imagery of Trump preparing for the major speech, with the release of photos and talking points, instead of the nuts and bolts of the policies he intends to propose.
Staffers sought to push the narrative that Trump’s first State of the Union would be positive and forward-looking — a tone in keeping with his recent Davos speech but one that’s in sharp contrast to the dark and divisive rhetoric of Trump’s inaugural address, in which he talked about “American carnage.”
“This is a president who wants to lead for everybody,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday. “He’s not looking to lead for any one person, any one group, but he wants to be the president of the United States. And I think that if you look at the policies that he has enacted over the first year, you can see that he’s doing exactly that.”
The president and first lady’s guests for the State of the Union included families and individuals who the White House say have benefited from the historic tax bill; families of victims murdered by the MS-13 gang; a veteran of the Iraq War; individuals who rescued others during wildfires in California and hurricanes in the South; and the adoptive parents of a baby whose parents suffered from opioid addiction.
Trump also hosted television anchors for lunch in the West Wing on Tuesday. For part of the session, he struck a conciliatory tone. When asked what he learned in his first year in office, he said: “So having a business background and a successful business background is great, but oftentimes you do things you would never do in business because you also have to govern with heart.”
He cited immigration as an issue that demands one approach it with “much more heart and soul.”
Trump spent much of the day rehearsing for the State of the Union, though he gave a speech similar in tone to Congress in late February 2017, roughly a month after he assumed the presidency.
In that address, Trump spoke optimistically — even, some felt, presidentially — about how “everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing and hope.”
Back then, he touted strong gains in the stock market, greater enforcement of immigration laws, conservative judicial picks and the need for tax reform as part of his first-year to-do list — all promises on which the Trump administration followed through.
Trump touts $1.5 trillion infrastructure push
In his first State of the Union address, President Trump promised that America would “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land.”
His first-year agenda has hewn much more closely to Republican orthodoxy than anyone could have predicted, given his 2016 campaign themes of putting dynamite to the establishment. But with huge tax cuts, deregulation, and a slew of conservative judicial appointments, Trump is, in fact, enacting conservatives’ wish list on a daily basis.
Other agenda items Trump mentioned in that 2017 speech have yet to reach fruition, dogging the Republican-controlled government, such as the repeal of Obamacare, the construction of a border wall, an infrastructure package of $1 trillion, and a complete overhaul of the country’s immigration system.