President Donald Trump embraced contradiction in his second State of the Union address Tuesday night, offering a rhetorical olive branch to his political opponents while also standing strong on some of his most controversial policies.
In a long and sometimes strange speech—punctuated by a spontaneous outbreak of song and occasional chants of “U.S.A.!”—Trump acknowledged the newly claimed Democratic control of the U.S. House and called for “cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” Yet the president also gave no indication that he would compromise on his demand for billions of dollars for a wall on the Mexican border; delivered a strong riposte to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has called that project “immoral”; and lashed out at investigations into his administration, claiming that they imperil American prosperity. The result was a speech that exalted bipartisanship without displaying a strategy, or even an appetite, for achieving it.
The tension in the president’s message was made clear early in his remarks. “The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda—it’s the agenda of the American people,” he said, reaching out, yet unable to resist the snide habit of refusing to call the Democratic Party by its name.
Trump’s implicit response to both House Democratic investigations into his administration and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was one of the more striking moments of the night. In last year’s speech, he avoided any mention of the Mueller inquiry.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
That remark echoes Trump’s habit of labeling the investigations a “witch hunt” in other forums, but doing so in the State of the Union is an acknowledgment that they pose an existential threat to his presidency. If Trump hoped to convince listeners that his own fate and that of the nation are inextricable, it did not seem to work. The line fell flat in the House chamber.
As is often the case, Trump seemed most comfortable and expansive when discussing immigration. He has recently failed to gain much purchase on the issue. Despite embarking on the longest government shutdown in history, he was unable to break Democratic will or convince voters that he was making the right call. Instead, Pelosi stared him down and eventually forced him to concede on a short-term funding measure. With funding set to expire again on February 15, Trump on Tuesday tried once more to gain the upper hand, playing on Pelosi’s labeling of the wall as “immoral” without mentioning her name.
“This is a moral issue,” Trump said. “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security, and financial well-being of all Americans. We have a moral duty to create an immigration system that protects the lives and jobs of our citizens. This includes our obligation to the millions of immigrants living here today who followed the rules and respected our laws.”
Noting that both parties have voted for some form of border barrier in the past, he insisted that the United States must build “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier—not just a simple concrete wall.”
Yet the president also seemed to stumble into what would be a major policy announcement. While his administration has worked to limit not just illegal but also legal immigration, Trump said Tuesday, “Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” That diverged from his prepared remarks, which said only, “I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally.”
Turning to foreign policy, Trump announced plans to hold a second round of meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, taking place in Vietnam on February 27 and 28. But he punctuated that point with a strange, unverifiable, and self-aggrandizing claim: “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea.”
He noted the recent American recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, but used the moment largely as a bludgeon against the newly resurgent American left. “We are born free, and we will stay free,” he said. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” Although his plans to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan have raised hackles among many members of Congress, especially those in the GOP, he won bipartisan applause when he said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
As expected, Trump also boasted at length about positive economic indicators, including strong job growth. But he was unable to resist the temptation to exaggerate and dissemble, saying that the United States has the hottest economy in the world (it doesn’t) and that his administration has cut more regulations than any in history (it hasn’t).
The two most striking takeaways from the speech weren’t things that Trump said. The first came when the president recognized Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who also survived the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. After Trump noted that Tuesday was Samet’s 81st birthday, the chamber broke into an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
The second was a visual: the sight of the women of the House Democratic caucus sitting together in a bloc and clad in white, both a nod to the women’s suffrage movement and a statement of the new political power of women in the party. Many of these lawmakers were elected in November and ran strongly against Trump. For the most part, they sat, often stone-faced, as Trump spoke—yet at one point, they did jubilantly cheer.
“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year. All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before,” Trump said. A few of the women rose to applaud.
The president spotted them and quipped, “You weren’t supposed to do that,” then added with a grin, “Don’t sit yet, you’re going to like this.” The next line—“And exactly one century after the Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in the Congress than at any time before”—had the bloc of women in white on their feet chanting “U.S.A.!,” an unexpected moment of bipartisanship.
But that warm and fuzzy moment was notable because it was an outlier. Though Trump spoke the language of compromise early in the speech, there is no indication that he has the will or a strategy to actually govern that way.
“We must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good,” Trump said. “Together we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions, and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
Though he would surely object, this passage sounded strikingly like his predecessor in the Oval Office. Trump sounded even more like Barack Obama when he proclaimed that his proposals were neither Republican nor Democratic, but American, paraphrasing Obama’s famous 2004 line that “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”
Both Obama and Trump campaigned promising to change the way Washington worked, and both found the reality of governing much harder, though Obama was able to achieve far more in his first two years. And if Trump struggled to find a way to enact his agenda with unified Republican control of Congress, the next two years will be far more challenging for him. Trump won some of his heartiest applause Tuesday night when he discussed the successful passage of criminal-justice reform, a bipartisan priority. But that bill seems like an anomaly—a rare case, in a polarized nation, in which both parties actually agreed on substance.
“Many of us have campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our nation’s infrastructure; to reduce the price of health care and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern, and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interest first,” Trump said. “There is a new opportunity in American politics, if only we have the courage, together, to seize it.”
The president is right that members of both parties share some of the same goals. But they have real and deep disagreements about the best ways to achieve them, and even about what success looks like. The problem is not a lack of courage, and if Trump realizes that and has a plan to overcome it, he offered no hint in his speech.