President Donald Trump urged Americans to come together Tuesday in a State of the Union speech seeking to turn the page on two years of divisive turmoil and transform him into a bipartisan national leader.
But opposition Democrats almost instantly rejected the overture, while Trump’s steadfast insistence on building US-Mexico border walls promised new political strife in the near future.
At times joking, at times impassioned, Trump told Congress and a huge television audience that “we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.”
On foreign policy, Trump reaffirmed his determination to get US troops out of Afghanistan and Syria as quickly as possible. And he announced he would extend his trailblazing personal diplomacy with North Korea by meeting reclusive leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28 in Vietnam.
Trump touted what he hopes will remain his strongest card with voters “the hottest economy anywhere in the world.” He also called for a bipartisan push to eradicate the AIDS epidemic in the United States in a decade.
But the key aim in the speech, littered with soaring rhetoric and interrupted continuously by applause from the Republicans, was to announce a new, more inclusive presidential tone ahead of Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.
The problem is that in two years of his administration Trump has driven an already polarized country into bitter, even violent debate over almost every aspect of politics.
The divide was stark from the moment Trump entered the House of Representatives chamber, with Republicans scrumming to shake his hands, but most Democrats keeping out of the way.
And the moment Trump swung onto his favorite topic of building a wall on the Mexican border to stop an “onslaught” of illegal immigrants, Democrats angrily shook their heads.
A decision by Democrat women to wear white, in honor of the early 20th century suffragette movement, was seen as a visual rebuke of Trump.
After the speech, Senior House Democrat Steny Hoyer declared that Trump “leaned on falsehoods and fear to obscure the reality of a presidency lacking in leadership and harmful to America’s future.”
The president’s single-minded drive and failure to get congressional funding for that wall is at the heart of the political dysfunction his speech claimed to be trying to resolve.
Democrats say that Trump’s warnings about illegal immigrant murderers amount to political fearmongering and they refuse to authorize the money.
The resulting standoff has turned what might have been a relatively minor funding debate into an existential test of political strength in the buildup to 2020.
In December, Trump took revenge on Congress by triggering a crippling five-week partial shutdown of government. Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was seated behind Trump for the State of the Union, exacted her own reprisal by forcing the speech to be delayed by a week.
Things could soon escalate, with Trump threatening to renew the shutdown or declare a national emergency so that he can bypass Congress and give himself power to take military funds for his project.
“I will get it built,” he said firmly, to cheers from Republicans and silence from Democrats.