Happy 2020, everyone.
President Trump used his State of the Union speech Tuesday to recast himself as the great uniter after two years of division, striking an unusually unifying tone in his speech’s start and end even as used the middle to attack immigration and paint Democrats as outside-the-mainstream, pro-abortion socialists .
“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,” he said, looking to the Democratic side of the House chamber.
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) held a stiff grin in the audience, Republicans cheered, and the half-dozen Democratic senators gearing up to run against him grimaced, with some applauding tersely.
“We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” he said as Republicans aimed cheers and applause across the aisle at their Democratic colleagues.
In swaths of the speech, Trump took a vastly different tone than he typically has. Many parts featured soaring rhetoric — he talked up the allied victory in World War II and the moon landing, celebrated guests of various religions and races — and sounded much more like a speech from any recent president of either party than a man who lamented “American carnage” in his inaugural address.
While he stuck to his hardline immigration views, Trump was careful to talk up legal immigration — something he often neglects to do when speaking off the cuff rather than off the page. He even ad-libbed a line promising to let legal immigrants into the U.S. “in the largest numbers ever.”
But in between a start and finish that featured soaring bipartisan rhetoric, Trump tossed red meat to his base — while tweaking his opponents.
That included on abortion. Trump accused Democrats of supporting late-term abortion after he claimed embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) “basically stated he would execute a baby after birth” and called for a ban of aborting “children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the only Democrat to applaud.
He warned Democrats not to investigate his administration — “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” he intoned.
And on immigration, Trump attacked Democrats as limousine liberals who don’t care about most Americans.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” he said. “Meanwhile, working class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration.”
Lawmakers in both parties saw 2020 in the speech.
“For the first 20 minutes or so it was fairly bipartisan, he tried to strike a chord of unity, and then after that he dug into the immigration issues he’s built his campaign and a lot of his presidency around that have really divided Americans,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), brother of presidential candidate Julian Castro, told TPM. “There were other issues where he’s clearly speaking to the people that he believes are the base of his support for 2020.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) made clear he thought Trump’s socialism attacks — and Democrats’ squirmy response — were a preview of the campaign to come.
“I was shocked that so many Democrats sat down when the president called on all of us reject socialism. That should have been one of the more unifying lines in an upbeat speech, so I think they should answer for that,” Scalise told TPM. “That’s a real problem for the Democrat Party here in Washington — it seems like an element of socialism is starting to embrace itself and take control of elements of their party and that’s something they’re going to have trouble explaining to most Americans who love freedom and reject socialism.”
The carefully crafted speech comes after a rare period that Trump has been off the campaign trail. The president, unlike almost every one before him, never stopped holding campaign rallies when he won the White House, first conducting a “thank you” tour around the country immediately after his win and returning to the trail for “Make America Great Again” rallies throughout his first year in office before hitting the trail hard for Senate Republicans in 2018. But the recently concluded government shutdown trapped him in Washington and away from the bright lights. Until Tuesday.
Democrats said his bipartisan rhetorical flourishes rang hollow after the last two years, especially mixed in with fear-mongering on immigration and warnings that Congress better not investigate him too closely.
“He throws immigration out there as a wedge issue,” House Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told TPM. “Abortion clearly was some red meat for the base. And even when he said things that sounded pretty decent if you were to just read them on the page, they were so completely devoid from the reality of what his first two years have been like that it was hard to clap for them.”
Trump’s potential 2020 foes clearly saw the event as a high-profile campaign moment as well. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gave his own rebuttal to the speech. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) taped a Facebook Live prebuttal. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) went on MSNBC to tease her weekend presidential announcement.
The half-dozen Democrats eying 2020 all sat clustered, with Klobuchar a few seats from Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Directly across the aisle were Harris, sitting next to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was just behind them. They mostly stuck together with their intermittent applause and stony glares.
Trump needs a lot to change to win reelection. His approval rating dipped even further during the recently concluded government shutdown, and while it appears to have stabilized he’s hovering just above 40 percent approval in most recent polls. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to hang over his political fate as well.
His poll numbers the lowest for a president two years into his first term in decades, but that’s no guarantee that Trump can’t win again. The last president with such poor poll numbers two years into his first term: Ronald Reagan, who went on to win a landslide less than two years later.
Trump’s campaign team used the big moment to generate support. They sent 10 separate emails and four texts in the last four days pushing supporters to donate to his reelection campaign, with the reward of getting their names displayed on the campaign’s own livestream of Trump’s speech.
This story was updated at 11:30 p.m. ET.