U.S. President Donald Trump used his first State of the Union address to strike a more conciliatory tone toward his opponents, even as he continued to promote policies likely to deepen political divisions ahead of looming votes in Congress on government funding and immigration.
Mr. Trump offered an optimistic message during his 80-minute speech, the third longest by any president, according to several measures. He touted his economic record, calling the buoyant stock market, falling unemployment rate, and the recent Republican tax cut measures part of a “new American moment” that had put the U.S. on a path toward prosperity.
Earlier in the week, White House officials had signaled that Mr. Trump would focus on building bridges across the political divide, and Mr. Trump spent part of his speech calling on Congress to “set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people.”
But that softened language came with few meaningful olive branches to Democrats, whom he asked to support legislation to curb legal immigration, increase spending on the military and border security, and authorize a $1.5-trillion (U.S.) infrastructure plan.
He also pledged to “wage a campaign of maximum pressure” on North Korea and modernize America’s nuclear arsenal. And minutes before his speech, he signed an executive order to reopen U.S. military prison Guantanamo Bay.
“He was standing his ground while saying we should work together by doing what I want, which is not normally a way to get people to compromise with you,” said Mary Stuckey of Pennsylvania State University.
Mr. Trump’s lengthy discussion on immigration is likely to be the most politically contentious.
Mr. Trump reiterated a White House plan that would tie a path to citizenship for so-called “DREAMers”– undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, to new funding for a border wall, an end to the diversity visa lottery system, and dramatic restrictions on family reunification programs. (DREAMers is a reference to the DREAM Act, legislation proposed under former president Barack Obama that would have granted such immigrants permanent residency.)
“Americans are dreamers too,” he said in a speech that made several references to MS-13, a gang founded by Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles, including addressing families of two teenage girls slain by members of the gang in 2016.
He characterized his immigration reform plan as a “down-the-middle compromise.” But few Democrats are likely to see it that way, potentially dashing hopes that Congress might be able to agree on an immigration reform bill ahead of a March 5 deadline Mr. Trump gave to phase out the a program that has allowed many DREAMers to work legally in the country.
“To the degree that the speech was presented as trying to build bridges with the Democrats, I don’t think he succeeded in terms of immigration,” said Louis DeSipio, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine.
The demand to restrict the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor family members is likely to be a “nonstarter” with the Democrats, said Molly Reynolds, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution. “The choice to really elevate and make this a central part of his speech sends a strong signal about where the White House is on this.”
The immigration debate looms over next week’s deadline for Congress to pass legislation reauthorizing funding for the federal government and avoid another government shutdown.
Mr. Trump’s speech effectively sends the issue back to Democrats, who have pushed to make any new spending bill contingent on an immigration deal for the DREAMers, Ms. Reynolds said. “The fact that Trump has gone a little bit more of a conservative a more comprehensive direction in the speech tonight that could make it more difficult to keep the government open at the end of next week.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appeared to agree, tweeting : “After a long and divisive year, many Americans were yearning for the President to present a unifying vision for the country. Unfortunately, his #SOTU address stoked the fires of division instead of bringing us closer together.”
Beyond immigration, Mr. Trump’s speech largely stayed away from the most contentious issues.
He made no mention of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Trump election campaign, or his feuds with the Justice Department and the FBI, though he asked Congress to give cabinet secretaries the authority to “remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
He also avoided repeating past threats to walk away from the North American free-trade agreement, instead promising to “fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones.”
That’s good news for Canada, coming off a week of NAFTA talks in Montreal. But Mr. Trump’s message of renewed economic confidence could still work against Canada in trade negotiations, said Laura Dawson, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C.
A growing economy, a possible shift toward a more skills-based immigration system and modernized trade agreements are issues that can help make the U.S. a more attractive market for investors and businesses. “Canada has benefitted from the fact that Donald Trump was creating business uncertainty,” she said. “Now I think he’s turning the table around.”
Despite few major new policy announcements, Mr. Trump’s measured and scripted speech will likely play well with his base and even beyond ahead of this year’s midterm elections, said Alvin Tillery, director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. “In many ways, it was President Trump’s strongest performance that he’s had to date in the presidency,” he said.
The White House had extended invitations to a diverse array of guests, including Latino and African-American families whose personal stories Mr. Trump used to highlight policies from military spending, to curbing illegal immigration, to escalating tensions with North Korea.
Their stories – and Mr. Trump’s largely on-message speech – are likely to resonate with some voters in swing states who had been turned off by the drama of Mr. Trump’s tumultuous year in office, Mr. Tillery said. “That person might be wavering a bit because he does look more inclusive.”
The Globe and Mail, January 30, 2018