7 Takeaways From President Trump's State Of The Union Address

Feb 6, 2019
Originally published on February 6, 2019 8:05 pm

President Trump delivered a wide-ranging State of the Union address Tuesday night that went an hour and 21 minutes. That's the third-longest ever.

So what should we make of Trump's third address to Congress, and in a year when Democrats are gearing up for a crowded primary to decide who will face Trump in 2020?

1. Trump did not acknowledge the new political reality in Washington

Each of the past four presidents, including Trump, had lost the House at some point during their presidency. And every one of them that came before Trump — Bill Clinton in 1995, George W. Bush in 2007 and Barack Obama in 2011 — nodded to that change.

Not Trump. Instead, he barreled ahead with pitching his agenda.

2. The speech was like whiplash

The president had some bipartisan overtures — talking about a recently enacted criminal justice law, paid family leave, lowering prescription drug costs and dangling, once again, infrastructure.

But the speech went from optimistic vagueries ("Our most thrilling achievements are still ahead") to misleading fears (calling a new caravan of Central American immigrants a "tremendous onslaught" and describing the Southern U.S. border as "very dangerous" and "lawless." NPR fact-checked the claims here.)

And Trump even fired this warning shot at Democrats about whether anything will get done: "If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took that as a threat, saying in a statement after the speech: "[H]e threatened the United States Congress not to exercise its constitutional responsibility of oversight."

3. There was news on North Korea

The only real bit of news in the speech was that Trump announced he would be meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a second summit Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. But the president also raised eyebrows, claiming that if he hadn't been elected, "we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea."

Oddly, Trump both overstates ("major war" potential) and understates (it hasn't denuclearized) the threat posed by North Korea.

4. There wasn't any progress on avoiding another shutdown

The president spent a good chunk of the speech on immigration. He argued in favor of a wall: "Simply put, walls work, and walls save lives."

And he did not seem like someone ready to negotiate on a wall or border security funding to avoid a shutdown.

"My administration has sent to Congress a common sense proposal to end the crisis on the Southern border," Trump said. "It includes humanitarian assistance, more law enforcement, drug detection at our ports, closing loopholes that enable child smuggling and plans for a new physical barrier or wall to secure the vast areas between our ports of entry. In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built. I will get it built."

Trump also did not mention federal workers or the government shutdown in the speech. So it appears, unless something drastic changes, the country is headed for either another partial shutdown or the president will declare a national emergency.

5. He's running; Trump's speech was aimed at creating a choice between himself and Democrats

Big sections of the speech felt like 2020 messaging. He was reinforcing his base, not just in talking about immigration, but he also denounced abortion in some of his strongest language (using the word "execute," for example). It was also strongly pro-Israel and stressed national security.

When he talked about Venezuela, he used it as an opportunity to tie it back to a criticism of Democrats domestically: "Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."

Trump's speech was billed as one of unity, but he subtly inserted campaign slogans and created a binary choice between him and Democrats, between "greatness" and "resistance."

"We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction," Trump said early on in his address. "Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness."

He came back to that theme at the end with another campaign theme: "I am asking you to choose greatness ... we must keep America first in our hearts."

6. Democratic women were a show of force

Democratic women, dressed all in white in honor of suffragettes, react as President Trump notes the record number of women in Congress.
Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

One of the moments of levity in the speech was when Trump noted: "No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women who have filled 58 percent of the newly created jobs last year."

That prompted Democratic women, clad in white outfits in honor of suffragettes, to let out a Bronx cheer. After all, women were a major reason why Democrats took back the House last year. The irony seemed lost on the president, who remarked, "You weren't supposed to do that."

Trump then noted, "We also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before."

But that is entirely because of Democratic women. The numbers of Republican women in Congress actually went down after the 2018 elections.

7. Stacey Abrams fared pretty well

Delivering the response to the State of the Union has been a tough task over the years, but Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams held up. There was no awkward walk down stairs, no desperate reaches for water and no fumbles. She made her case, slammed Trump over the recent partial shutdown and even said she didn't hope for his failure.

The bottom line is Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid for governor in 2018, did nothing to dissuade Democrats from wanting her to run for the U.S. Senate seat in Georgia in 2020.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Well, he's running. If there was any doubt about President Trump's 2020 plans, he dispelled those last night in his State of the Union address. Sprinkled through the speech, the president laid out pillars of a potential campaign message. Here to walk us through them is NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: There were moments in the speech when it sounded more like a campaign rally than a State of the Union address. What did you hear?

MONTANARO: Well, definitely. That's true. I mean, there were moments when there were chants of USA, USA, which is really unusual in that chamber - far more likely at a Trump campaign rally. And there were some subtle 2020 phrases that the president used that we might hear again. Let's take a listen to what he did at the beginning of the speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2019 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.

MONTANARO: I mean, so you see what he's doing there. Greatness - nothing is more associated with this president than that Make America Great Again slogan. And resistance - of course, the Democratic slogan against the president. And at the end, he hit it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2019 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

TRUMP: I am asking you to choose greatness. No matter the trials we face, no matter the challenges to come, we must go forward together. We must keep America first in our hearts.

MONTANARO: So far from a unifying message there, he's making a binary choice, just like in elections between him and Democrats.

SHAPIRO: OK, so that's the sizzle. What about the steak? What were the policies, the proposals of substance that you think sound like a campaign platform?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, he spent a good chunk of the speech obviously focusing on immigration, which is certainly a core issue to the base. He showed no signs of relenting on a border wall or border security funding, and said that he will build it. He also touched on some pretty familiar core Republican themes. He took a very strongly pro-Israel stance. He talked about strengthening the military. And he used very stark language when you're talking about late-term abortion. There's no single issue, really, that has sent Democrats and Republicans further into their corners than abortion over the years. So by bringing it up the way he did - in a State of the Union in a year before he's up for re-election - he's really talking directly to the base.

SHAPIRO: During the foreign policy part of his speech, the president talked about Venezuela and seemed to make that about U.S. domestic politics. Listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2019 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

TRUMP: Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Socialism - do you think that specter is going to be a big 2020 campaign theme?

MONTANARO: You bet. I mean, it's hard not to see that as a shot at some of the Democrats running in 2020. Bernie Sanders was in that room. He's a self-declared democratic socialist. He certainly moved the party left in 2016 when he ran for president, and now almost all of the Democrats who might run or who are already running for president support, for example, "Medicare-for-all." That's a big change. Republicans see that as a lurch toward socialism, and this president is happy to run against it.

SHAPIRO: It's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.