World·Analysis

Emboldened by impending acquittal, Trump uses state of the union as stump speech

Emboldened by an impending acquittal in his impeachment trial, a sputtering start to the Democratic caucuses and rising approval ratings, U.S. President Donald Trump gave a rousing state of the union address Tuesday aimed squarely at his base.

An emboldened U.S. president sees little reason to reach across the aisle

U.S. President Donald Trump delivered his state of the union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Emboldened by an impending acquittal in his impeachment trial, a sputtering start to the Democratic caucuses and his highest approval ratings to date, U.S. President Donald Trump gave a rousing state of the union address Tuesday aimed squarely at his base.

The mood may have started out ceremonial and civil in the hallways of the Capitol, but it became decidedly less so inside the House, culminating in a walkout by several Democratic legislators and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripping up her copy of Trump's speech, later labelling it a "manifesto of mistruths."

While state of the union addresses are supposed to unify the nation and energize supporters, Trump's speech tilted toward the latter while avoiding even a nod to his impeachment. 

"It was really a campaign speech," said Meena Bose, executive dean for public policy and public service programs at Hofstra University in New York state. 

"It's consistent with the kind of turbulent times that we're in. I think bipartisanship may be a bridge too far in 2020."

The evening had all the trappings of a Trump rally, including chants of "USA, USA!" interspersed with "Four more years!" One of the more bizarre displays of pageantry of the night was a tribute to conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom partway through the speech.

Here are a few key themes that emerged from the state of the union.

WATCH | Speaker Nancy Pelosi can't hide her disdain and rips up her copy of Trump's state of the union address:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi reacts

3 years ago
Duration 0:08
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi rips up a copy of U.S. President Donald Trump's state of the union address at the end of the speech.

Economy

Trump had lots to brag about: U.S. unemployment is at a 50-year low, wages are rising and the stock market is booming. But economists warn that there are some shades of grey to Trump's "blue-collar boom."

The corporate tax cuts passed two years ago generated a fiscal stimulus and job growth, but they haven't spurred businesses to invest. Economic growth, at 2.1 per cent last quarter, has been more modest than the four to six per cent Trump promised at the start of his presidency. 

"[Companies] have literally trillions of dollars on their balance sheets that they could invest if they wanted to. What they're doing instead is they're buying back their stock," said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.

WATCH | 'This is a blue-collar boom': Trump points to employment gains across the board:

Employment gains

3 years ago
Duration 3:35
U.S. President Donald Trump highlights low unemployment and job growth in his state of the union address.

While that might benefit the markets, the biggest boost from that boom has gone to the wealthiest 10 per cent of Americans, who own more than 80 per cent of stocks.

The deregulation Trump highlighted in the speech has had a positive impact on investment and job creation in some sectors, but carries an environmental cost, which got no mention.

Also noticeably absent was any mention of the country's $1-trillion US deficit and the more than $23 trillion in debt, which is expected to reach 98 per cent of GDP by 2030.

Trade

The new NAFTA and the recently negotiated first phase of a trade deal with China are big talking points for Trump, and Tuesday night was no exception.

But Trump's take-no-prisoners approach to trade wars is widely seen as having a negative impact not just on the U.S. economy but the global trading system.

Retaliatory tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products have hurt the U.S. manufacturing sector, which is technically in a recession, and the agricultural sector, which in 2019 saw the highest number of farm bankruptcies in eight years. 

WATCH | Trade tariffs a hallmark of Trump economy:

Fairer trade deals

3 years ago
Duration 1:42
U.S. President Donald Trump tauts greater 'fairness and reciprocity' in the new trade deal he negotiated with Canada and Mexico to replace NAFTA.

The unpredictable nature in which Trump wields tariffs as a negotiating tactic has injected uncertainty into the supply chain and made businesses reluctant to make long-term investments.

"Business confidence has fallen across the board and not just in tradable sectors," said Kirkegaard.

On Tuesday, Trump touted those tariffs, saying "our strategy has worked" and calling the recently signed deal with China "groundbreaking."

But Kirkegaard and others say the deal is more of a detente and it's gains are modest. It still preserves about $360 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods, for one, and allows China to keep subsidizing some industries.

Health care

Health care has been a differentiating issue in the Democratic race for president, and Trump seized on the Medicare for All policies that some Democrats have been advocating.

"One hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million very happy Americans," he said. 

WATCH | Trump attacks Democrats' 'socialist takeover' of health care:

Trump on health care

3 years ago
Duration 0:41
U.S. President Donald Trump makes a veiled jab at his Democratic rivals by warning that he will 'never let socialism destroy American health care.'

He warned that the coverage for undocumented immigrants that such plans include would "raid the Medicare benefits of our seniors" and drew a line in the political sand: "If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left."

Trump stretched the truth several times in this part of his speech, vowing, for example, to protect patients with pre-existing conditions, which is a protection guaranteed under the Obama-era Affordable Care Act that has been challenged under the Trump administration.

Shefali Luthra of Kaiser Health News, who was fact-checking the speech for the PolitiFact website, also found that his claims about drug prices falling last year did not pass muster. 

"Prices may be stabilizing, but they are not coming down, and consumers are not experiencing that relief," she wrote.

Immigration 

On immigration, Trump repeated some familiar refrains that have defined his rhetoric on the issue since the 2016 presidential campaign, highlighting specific cases of violent crimes committed by "illegal aliens" and decrying "radical politicians" who have declared their cities sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants.

He gave an accurate picture of the decrease in illegal border crossings in the last eight months — although the total for 2019 was still the highest since 2007 — but was less forthcoming about the wall on the Mexico-U.S. border that he has been promising since the start of his presidency.

WATCH | Trump promises overhaul of immigration system:

'Reasserting the culture of American freedom'

3 years ago
Duration 0:35
U.S. President Donald Trump highlights his efforts to overhaul what he called an 'outdated' immigration system.

Trump told the assembled audience that 100 miles (161 km) have been "completed," when in fact all but one mile of that was a rebuild of existing barriers. The additional 500 miles (805 km) he has promised by the end of the year could face hurdles when it comes to acquiring the private land needed to build even a semi-contiguous barrier along the southwest border.

"It's more of a symbol than a reality," said Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "Most Americans don't really know what the administration is constructing along the border."

Wedge issues

Trump didn't shy away from some of the most polarizing wedge issues: from abortion to religion to guns to Supreme Court judges.

"He really doubled down on all of them," said Scott Anderson, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "He sees where his bread is buttered. He's going back to his base."

Anderson and other observers see it as a sign of what's to come in an election campaign catering to an electorate nearly evenly divided along partisan lines.

"If you're running to your base in the state of the union, which is usually an effort to put forward a kind of broad-based positive vision that a lot of voters can sign on to, then when you're in the middle of a more committed political race, you're definitely running to the base." 

Trade, specifically the Canada-U.S.-Mexico deal, known as CUSMA or USMCA, was one area where it was thought Trump might highlight the bipartisanship that went into reaching a consensus. But that didn't happen.

National security

National security came up in the latter half of the 80-minute-long speech and contained few surprises. Trump highlighted the foreign policy accomplishments most observers had anticipated he would: the recently announced Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and the assassinations of Iranian Maj.-Gen Qasem Soleimani and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

As in other parts of the speech, Trump used the personal stories of some of his invited guests to underscore policy accomplishments — in this case, the presence of Carl and Marsha Mueller, whose daughter Kayla, an American aid worker, was held captive in Syria by ISIS and killed in 2015.

In one orchestrated reveal worthy of day-time TV, he brought out a returning soldier to be reunited with his young family

WATCH | Trump's vow to bring troops home earns applause:

Ending 'American's longest war'

3 years ago
Duration 3:08
U.S. President Donald Trump highlights his administration's national security accomplishments and vows to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.

Perhaps sobered by the recent escalation of tensions with Iran, Trump struck somewhat of a conciliatory tone, urging the regime not to be "too proud or too foolish" to ask for help with the country's flagging economy. "We are here," Trump said, while at the same time warning Iran to "stop spreading terror, death and destruction."

Although he avoided explicitly mentioning the controversial withdrawal of troops from Syria, which some in his administration criticized as premature, Trump highlighted the need to draw down American troops abroad, specifically in Afghanistan.

"It is also not our function to serve other nations as law enforcement agencies," he said. "We are working to finally end America's longest war and bring our troops back home."

It's an issue that would have resonated with a wide swath of Americans eager to disentangle from the protracted conflict, said Bose. Trump punctuated it with a signature made-for-TV moment, reuniting a young military family live on air in the middle of the state of the union address.

'Thank you, Mr. President'

3 years ago
Duration 1:11
U.S. President Donald Trump surprises the crowd at the state of the union address by introducing Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader who has been trying to oust President Nicolas Maduro for the past year and whom the U.S., Canada and other countries consider the rightful president.

One foreign policy surprise was the presence of Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader who had been in Miami days earlier rallying support to his cause.

He was an odd choice of guest at an event touting policy wins, given that his year-long attempt to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro has thus far been unsuccessful, despite support from the U.S., Canada and other Western nations, who've declared him the rightful president.

Guaido's presence, as well as Trump's earlier reference to reversals of the "failing policies of the previous administration on Cuba," might score him points with Latino voters in the key swing state of Florida come November.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with CBCNews.ca. She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.

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