Five takeaways from Trump’s State of the Union

Toya Sarno Jordan

President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. 

What were the main takeaways?

Immigration dominates

Trump’s rhetoric on immigration dominated the discussion on cable news immediately after the speech and was set to seize the headlines on Wednesday morning.

The president delivered a lengthy and emphatic defense of the administration’s position on illegal immigration in general and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in particular.


In the signature line from the night, Trump insisted “Americans are dreamers, too” — an allusion to the name of “Dreamers” for DACA beneficiaries and to Trump’s insistence that the rights of native-born Americans should be the primary focus.

At other points, he complained about “the terrible loopholes exploited by criminals and terrorists to enter our country” and linked lax immigration policy to the activities of criminal gangs like MS-13 and to two terrorist attacks in New York.

Democrats and liberals were outraged. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a potential 2020 presidential candidate, called Trump’s language “completely irresponsible” and “fearmongering” in an interview with Chris Matthews of MSNBC.

But Trump’s unapologetic stance will play very well with a base that elected him in part because of the immigration question. 

And, alongside his harder rhetoric, Trump did emphasize that the White House framework on DACA offers a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children.

Keeping the base happy

Immigration was by no means the only topic on which Trump offered red meat to his base.

One of the big, early applause lines came when he alluded to the long-running controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequity.

Citing as a counterpoint 12-year-old Preston Sharp, who Trump said had “started a movement” that had ultimately placed 40,000 flags at veterans’ graves, he said the young boy’s attitude was a reminder of “why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

There were also plenty of references to Trump’s economic record.

The general parameters of that discussion — low unemployment, solid growth and a rising stock market — clearly have appeal to most voters, including independents. 

But the president also made sure to remind more ideological conservatives of his deregulation efforts and the sizable corporate tax cut he enacted in December.

He also got a huge cheer from his own side when he highlighted the repeal of the individual mandate, one of the core elements of the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare.

Unity? Not so much

Early excerpts of the speech released by the White House had suggested a conciliatory tone — especially by Trump’s combative standards — and a president who would seek to call the nation together.

The excerpts were accurate — but unrepresentative of the speech as a whole. Moments of optimistic rhetoric, such as an insistence that the nation was experiencing a “new American moment,” gave way to warnings about the dangers of illegal immigration and the threats posed by foreign foes.

There were only a couple of instances where the president held out a plausible offer of bipartisanship. One was on infrastructure spending, the other a brief mention of prison reform.  

Few minds changed

Trump is a hugely polarizing figure, and it’s hard to see how that changes anytime soon.

Tuesday’s address provided few reasons for those voters who view him with distaste to take a fresh look. Equally, there was also no big departure that might weaken the ardor of those who have backed him through thick and thin.

Trump’s bet appears to be that his concentration on the base will keep his voters energized, for November’s midterms and on into the 2020 elections.

But it’s hard to tell whether that strategy will work. Despite the robust economy, Trump is at just 40.1 percent job approval in the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Snap polls by CBS and CNN, however, suggested many of those watching the address approved. The CNN poll found 48 percent had a “very positive” reaction — the exact percentage CNN polled for former Presidents George W. Bush in 2006 and Barack Obama in 2010 ahead of midterm losses for their parties.

Silence on Russia — from the podium

The State of the Union was delivered against a backdrop of Russia-related controversy.

The push from some conservatives to release a memo written by staff members for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif) has raised the ire of liberals, who say it amounts to an abuse of power. The memo is understood to allege misdeeds by the Department of Justice and FBI.

Reports came to light last week that Trump sought to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June. And Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, announced he was stepping down ahead of schedule earlier this week.

The president, unsurprisingly, made no mention of any of this during his remarks. 

But as he was leaving the House chamber, he was heard reassuring Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) that he was “100 percent” behind the release of the Nunes memo.

The off-hand remark provided yet more assurance, if any were needed, that the news spotlight would swing back to the Russia probe and related matters soon enough. 

Tags Barack Obama Devin Nunes Donald Trump Jeff Duncan Robert Mueller SOTU 2018
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