WASHINGTON – Donald Trump struck a triumphant tone in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, staking his bid for re-election squarely on the U.S. economy and embracing the deep partisan rancor over his presidency on the eve of his likely acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial.
As he took to the dais, Trump turned his back on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she offered to shake his hand. When he concluded his remarks, Pelosi could be seen directly behind the president, ripping up a printed transcript of his speech.
The core of Trump’s remarks, though, was U.S. economic growth — the pillar of his campaign for re-election in 2020 and what he called “the great American comeback.”
“In just three short years, we have shattered the mentality of American decline and we have rejected the downsizing of America’s destiny,” Trump said Tuesday from the House chamber. “We are moving forward at a pace that was unimaginable just a short time ago, and we are never going back.”
In the address, Trump also invoked scenes of violence, including murder and other crimes by undocumented immigrants and attacks on U.S. citizens by terrorists, as well as retaliation by American forces. He seeded his remarks with made-for-TV surprises, including the reunification of a soldier deployed overseas with his family, the award of the Medal of Freedom to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and the attendance of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The president also tried to appeal to working-class voters who helped elect him in 2016 by saying the benefits of his economic policies are widespread, countering criticism that they have primarily benefited the wealthy.
“Every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success,” Trump said. “Every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise.” The U.S. was experiencing a “blue collar boom,” he said.
The U.S. is in fact one of the most unequal nations among its peers, with a growing share of wealth accrued to the top of the income-ladder. That’s left not only the poorest, but also the middle class behind. A Census Bureau report last year found that income inequality in the U.S. had widened “significantly” in 2018.
Ahead of his speech, Trump was greeted by good news when Gallup said his approval rating had reached 49 percent among registered U.S. voters — a high-water mark for his presidency. But the polling firm found 50 percent of voters still disapprove of him, as well as a yawning divide between Republican and Democratic support. Trump enjoys 94 percent approval within his own party but just 7 percent among the opposition, the largest such difference Gallup has ever recorded, it said.
The chamber provided a dramatic stage for nation’s leaders, who have been bitterly divided in a partisan fight over Trump’s impeachment. Vice President Mike Pence stood side-by-side with Pelosi in the center of the room, though the two appeared to ignore each other.
After the event, Pelosi said ripping up the speech was “the courteous thing to do, considering the alternative.”
Trump staged multiple dramatic moments in the speech. He praised a military spouse, Amy Williams from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then surprised her by announcing that her husband was in the House chamber, just back from a deployment in Afghanistan.
Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader, attended the speech as a guest of the White House, providing a high-profile platform for the National Assembly leader as he seeks to revive support for his bid to oust President Nicolas Maduro. In the speech, Trump referred to Guaido as “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela.”
On Wednesday, the GOP-led Senate is expected to acquit Trump of articles of impeachment brought by the Democratic-controlled House after he sought to pressure Ukraine’s government to investigate political rivals.
As Trump spoke, Democrats were grappling with the botched Iowa caucuses to determine who will challenge Trump on the ballot in November. The president used his address to criticize Democrats’ proposals to expand Medicare to all Americans.
Trump also made an “ironclad pledge” to protect patients with pre-existing health conditions. The president has previously claimed to have saved insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, though the protections were in place from former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a law he has been trying to dismantle.
He also said his administration “will always protect your Medicare and we will always protect your Social Security.” But he’s previously suggested cutting Social Security to shrink the country’s growing budget deficit.
Trump also highlighted his administration’s efforts to cut regulations, particularly environmental rules that had restricted oil and gas development. He touted recent trade deals, including his “phase one” China deal, and a renegotiated pact with Canada and Mexico.
While his China deal has eased investor concern and likely warded off new Trump tariffs, it’s narrower in scope than first envisioned and has hit American farmers heavily. In turn, Trump has shoveled $28 billion in one-time aid to farmers to make up for the trade war. That’s more than twice the cost of the auto industry bailout engineered in the Great Recession a decade ago.
Trump’s new continental trade deal is the U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, a fundamentally modest rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement. It will eventually boost U.S. economic output by 0.35 percent, and raise U.S. employment by about 0.12 percent, according to an April 2019 analysis by the nonpartisan United States International Trade Commission. Trump’s speech overstated projections on job gains.
Trump’s running on the economy, though there are warning signs. He echoed campaign speeches by citing the low unemployment figures, but job gains slowed in December as wages rose at the weakest annual pace since 2018. The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates three times to respond to weakness, and Trump has urged more cuts. Trump has also cited the economy as a defense in the ongoing impeachment trial, arguing that it’s wrong to impeach a president during a time of growth.
In the Democratic response to Trump’s address, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said the growing economy that Trump heralded is leaving middle-income Americans behind.
Whitmer won the governorship in 2018, two years after Trump unexpectedly won Michigan by less than half a percentage point over Democrat Hillary Clinton. In her remarks, she said American workers have stagnant wages, not only in her state but in midwestern battleground states Trump won.
“American workers are hurting,” she said. “In my own state, our neighbors in Wisconsin and Ohio and Pennsylvania. All over the country. Wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed.”
Trump has courted black voters as part of his re-election bid, hailing unemployment rates. There are signs, however, that it remains an uphill battle. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll last month of 1,088 black adults found that 83 percent said Trump is a racist, and the same share said he’s made racism worse in the country. It found a job approval rating of 7 percent.
In his State of the Union speech, Trump singled out a black family from Philadelphia who have sought to move their daughter from what the White House called “low-performing” public schools and a black man the White House said benefited from the “Opportunity Zone” investment program created by his 2017 tax overhaul.
Trump also recognized 100-year-old Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators to serve in the U.S. armed forces; the president said he pinned stars on McGee’s shoulders earlier in the day marking his promotion to brigadier general.
Trump tried in his speech to appeal to Latino voters, describing record low unemployment among Hispanics. Yet he repeated controversial rhetoric he regularly uses on the campaign trail about criminals crossing the border.