WASHINGTON _ President Donald Trump called on the nation to “break decades of political stalemate” in what he touted as a unifying State of the Union address Tuesday night, one delayed by a 35-day partial government shutdown he’d provoked that exacerbated partisan divisions and put Washington’s dysfunction on vivid display.
“There is a new opportunity in American politics if only we have the courage together to seize it,” Trump said. “Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.”
“Together, we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old 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.
“Tonight,” he said, “I ask you to choose greatness.”
Despite the calls to compromise, the traditional nationally televised speech came at a perilous juncture for the president, who for the first time shares power with congressional Democrats after last fall’s big election losses, even as he faces judgments in a range of investigations into his administration, family business, campaign and even his 2016 inaugural committee.
Trump defiantly alluded to the investigations at one point, saying, “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.”
Sitting just behind him, the president’s newly empowered Democratic opponent, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, rolled her eyes.
The president outlined five policy areas as grounds for bipartisan compromise _ immigration, trade, infrastructure, health care and national security _ yet his record on each over his first two years as president has left Democrats as well as some Republicans skeptical of his willingness both to follow through on his initiatives and to accept compromises.
Even in the days before his speech, the president repeatedly bad-mouthed the efforts of a bipartisan group of lawmakers trying to negotiate compromise border-security measures to avert another impasse with Trump over his demand for $5.7 billion to start building a southern border wall _ the issue that caused the shutdown.
He had also teased in advance of the State of the Union address his threat to declare a national emergency on the border, to circumvent Congress altogether and divert existing funds from other purposes to wall construction. The president declined to announce such a declaration, which Republican leaders have warned against. Yet he argued at length for his proposed wall, despite his failed efforts of the past two years.
Trump tried to make the case that overhauling immigration was “a moral duty,” while arguing that “no issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class.”
“Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” he said.
Over Trump’s shoulder in the House chamber, Pelosi looked on beside Vice President Mike Trump, dramatizing the president’s new reality that he no longer enjoys the malleable Republican majorities in both the House and Senate that allowed him to control the agenda. For two years, that advantage allowed Trump some successes, including big tax cuts, but proved insufficient to fulfill his promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act and build a wall.
Already Pelosi has gotten the better of him, forcing his retreat in the shutdown in the first month of Democrats’ House control, proving able to keep her party aligned and mobilize public opinion. She has made clear, along with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat, that their party will continue to challenge him on immigration and other issues.
She did not introduce him, and he did not recognize her by name. Both Pelosi and dozens of congresswomen were dressed in white, the symbolic color of women’s suffrage, making for a dramatic show on the House floor of the greatly expanded number of women after November’s Democratic election gains.
While many of them did not applaud the president, when he boasted at one point that a majority of new jobs have gone to women, the freshmen Democratic congresswomen _ many elected by anti-Trump voters _ rose to applaud themselves. The president then congratulated them, and the audience chanted “U.S.A.!”
Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid to be Georgia’s governor yet emerged as a national figure, was to deliver the official Democratic Party response to Trump, and lambaste him for a shutdown that left 800,000 federal workers and many contractors unpaid for a month.
“Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace,” Abrams planned to say, according to prepared remarks. “The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”
Trump had suggested that the State of the Union address was an opportunity for a reset, though few expected him to change his divisive style that has given him consistently narrow support from 4 out of 10 Americans in polls.
Once again he proposed a national program to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure, yet he did so only briefly and to little response from lawmakers. Many Republicans oppose the sort of big spending program that would be popular with Democrats. The House will begin hearings on infrastructure legislation on Thursday.
Trump noted efforts to lower prescription drug prices as another area of potential bipartisanship, but details remain divisive. He also promoted the revised North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, which requires Congress’ approval but faces some opposition in both parties.
The president noted his administration’s efforts toward a trade accord with China, even as both countries’ negotiators have struggled to reach a deal against the backdrop of a trade war of tit-for-tat tariffs that he initiated.
Trump’s top priority _ building the wall and curbing legal and illegal immigration _ will perhaps be the hardest to achieve, given the gulf with Democrats and even some Republicans. Though Democrats have agreed in the past to support border fences as part of broad immigration deals, Pelosi now calls a wall “immoral.” Further hindering the president, many of his hard-line immigration allies do not see a wall as a priority.
Polls show Trump’s approval at about 41 percent on average, with more than 55 percent of voters disapproving of his performance. Presidents typically see their popularity rise after State of the Union addresses. Trump won a modest bump last year, but his low job approval has remained relatively stable throughout a presidency in which he has directed most of his efforts toward pleasing his core supporters.
A Gallup poll released on Monday showed that on Trump’s signature issue, the wall, 60 percent of Americans oppose significant expansion along the border. Polls have shown broader and more bipartisan support for efforts to curb health care costs and spend more money on infrastructure.
-By Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols, Los Angeles Times