President Donald Trump's rousing State of the Union address to a divided Congress encouraged his supporters with bold defense of conservative values, overtly reached out to independents on the basis of successful implementation of domestic policy goals, and in so doing enraged the Democrat left on what was already a difficult day for them.
Trump highlighted the booming economy, articulated his foreign policy, and tied his vision for the American future to its heroic past and frontier spirit. He also gave a scholarship in real time, bestowed a Medal of Freedom in real time, and dramatically reunited a family with their soldier husband and father, making for the most emotional State of the Union address since President Reagan first began highlighting American heroes in the gallery during his annual address.
The speech was such a success, in fact, that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi lost her cool at the end and literally tore up her copy of the speech in a fit of sputtering rage.
1. The Facts Are Strong
The main reason the speech worked so well was not because President Trump's delivery was masterful. In fact, a beautiful line early in the speech — "We have rejected the downsizing of America's destiny" — fell a bit flat in his telling.
The speech was well written and played to President Trump's strengths as a showman, showing policy goals and successes through the gripping stories of real Americans who were present in the balcony. But ultimately the speech was good because the facts were so good.
The Constitution requires the president to "give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." The facts regarding the current health of the United States are undeniably strong. The economy is doing so well that it's a story that can be told from multiple angles, and the policy successes he bragged about were worth bragging about.
2. The Blue-Collar Boom
While elites in Washington, D.C., continue to resist President Trump, he spoke around them to average Americans, who are experiencing what he called a "blue-collar boom." Reminding Americans of past presidents' "jobless recoveries, tired platitudes, and constant excuses for the depletion of American wealth, power, and prestige," he instead focused on the results of his regulatory reform, tax cuts, and renegotiated trade agreements.
He cited new jobs, low unemployment rates, decreases in poverty, increases in the work force, increases in wages, the surprising improvement of the manufacturing sector, and more. He tied these successes to the robust stock market, new heights in consumer confidence, and pension performance.
3. Emphasizing Bipartisan Successes
Part of Pelosi's frustration with Trump is that he didn't seem to even care that she had just led her caucus into a partisan impeachment of him. He will be acquitted today, perhaps in a bipartisan fashion, but it was an issue he didn't even bother to address, much less dwell on. He seemed to give the impeachment issue as much seriousness as House Democrats did, which is to say not much.
Instead, he focused on what could be accomplished for Americans if the parties work together instead of in a constant state of Resistance. He noted that criminal justice reform and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement were done by everyone working together.
4. A Speech It Was Difficult to Ostentatiously Oppose
Clearly Democrats had made an agreement to be hostile to President Trump. Many of them sat on their hands no matter the topic. In fact, one leader of the Democratic Party, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, announced her refusal to even show up to the speech.
As President Trump listed economic successes, going into granular detail about how the economy had helped minorities and women, Democrats' refusal to clap looked odd. By the time people were refusing to clap for 100-year-old heroes such as Tuskegee Airman Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, the oppositional stance looked downright absurd.
These scenes and these Americans are some of what the opposition refused to show even polite applause for.
It was a great State of the Union. These were my favorite moments. pic.twitter.com/YxbKpnAgF0— Greg Price (@greg_price11) February 5, 2020
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, distinguished herself not just by wearing blue, contra the white outfits a gaggle of Democratic women chose, but by clapping for things when she felt like it, such as for President Trump's praise of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and for Sen. Tim Scott's Opportunity Zones.
5. Opposition to Socialism
In a move that angered some Democrats, President Trump highlighted his opposition to socialism. He lamented what socialist dictator Nicolas Maduro is doing to the people of Venezuela, and asserted that all Americans are united with the Venezuelans in their struggle for freedom. "Socialism destroys nations," he said, "But always remember, freedom unifies the soul." In a discussion about improving Americans' health care, he said, "We will never let socialism destroy American health care."
6. Overt Outreach to Black Americans
President Trump highlighted how the booming economy is helping black Americans. He emphasized how criminal justice reform, a key issue for African Americans, gives former felons a new lease on life.
He highlighted the plight of Stephanie Davis, a single mother trying to get her daughter Janiyah into a better school through opportunity scholarships, putting an adorable face to school choice. He tied the marchers at Selma to the soldiers of Valley Forge. The American heroes he referenced included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and various black Americans in the balcony. And he talked about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
The president is not hiding his attempt to gain more support from black Americans, and the speech follows up on a powerful Superbowl ad highlighting his work on criminal justice reform. Republicans struggle to gain black votes, but Trump already outperformed John McCain and Mitt Romney with these voters in his 2016 bid, before the successes he touted last night.
As Democratic primary voters threaten to pick a nominee who does not excite black voters, the outreach could continue to reshape the Republican coalition. Democratic pundit Van Jones sounded the warning about the effectiveness of this strategy to his CNN audience:
WAKE UP, folks. The #IowaCaucus was a debacle, followed by a strong #SOTU speech laying out Trump's strategy to win – which includes going for Black voters. This was a warning shot from the Trump campaign to liberals, and we need to take this VERY seriously in order to win. @CNN pic.twitter.com/bgBFms9jtN— Van Jones (@VanJones68) February 5, 2020
7. Boldness Unmatched by Any Other Republican President
Smack dab in the middle of the speech, President Trump thanked conservative hero Rush Limbaugh for "decades of tireless devotion" to the country. In recognition of his work and the inspiration he has provided millions of Americans, Trump announced the country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He had Melania Trump immediately present the honor in front of the assembled crowd.
While it is beyond common for liberal heroes and liberal celebrities to receive awards, Republican leaders acted over the course of decades almost as if it was okay for conservatives to be treated as second-class citizens in this regard. President Trump recognizes that the half of the country that is not liberal also likes to honor its celebrities and heroes.
Limbaugh has taught millions of Americans about conservative ideology, emphasizing the Constitution and the country's founding ideals, and suffered attacks from the left as a result. He is a folk hero who is beloved in part because he defends tens of millions of Americans against attacks.
No other previous Republican president or nominee would have had the courage to bestow this award on such a deserving American. They would instead have worried about a media backlash. The media and Democrats did in fact react negatively to the honor for Limbaugh, who announced this week he has advanced cancer.
8. Putting an Incredibly Cute Face to Victims of Late-Term Abortion
One of the most touching moments of the speech was the introduction of Ellie Schneider, born at 21 weeks, and her mother Robin. The 2-year-old yawned a huge yawn as she was introduced to the nation in the arms of her devoted mother. It was a reminder that children like Ellie are born at a time when it is legal to kill them in utero. "Ellie reminds us that every child is a miracle of life," President Trump said, and challenged members of all political parties to agree that "every human life is a sacred gift from God."
This issue is particularly salient as Democrats more openly support late-term abortion, support allowing children who survive abortion attempts to die, and support exiling pro-life voters from their ranks.
9. A Touching Supreme Court Moment
Supreme Court Justices typically attend the State of the Union Address. Chief Justice John Roberts, also presiding over the impeachment trial in the Senate, was there, although Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not make it.
At one point, President Trump thanked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues in the Senate for helping him confirm a record number of 187 new federal judges. He noted by name his two Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Elena Kagan, seated next to Gorsuch, smiled at him. Gorsuch, seated next to Kavanaugh, smiled at him as well. It was a reminder that as tough as Supreme Court nomination battles are, the justices are a collegial group and that Trump's appointees have been well accepted by the group.
10. Articulating a Restrained Foreign Policy
One of the reasons President Trump won in 2016 was his opposition to the way we fight wars. At the same time, he is willing to use American force to advance American interests. This confuses the foreign policy groups at either extreme. When discussing his desire to end the war in Afghanistan, he said of America's warfighters that they are "the best in the world, and they either want to fight to win or not fight at all."
Trump highlighted the cost to the American warfighters and their families because of the way we have fought wars. He told the stories of people who had lost lives and limbs as a result of serving abroad. He highlighted the life of Kayla Mueller, who was killed by ISIS leader and founder Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. He highlighted the life of Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Hake, who was killed by a roadside bomb provided by Qasem Soleimani. The families of both victims were in the gallery and when they were introduced, it was heartbreaking.
"War places a heavy burden on our nation's extraordinary military families," Trump said, introducing Amy Williams and her two young children. Husband and father Sgt. First Class Townsend Williams was described as serving his fourth tour in Afghanistan.
In a final example of Trump's effective handling of the televised moment, he announced to Amy and her kids that Williams was surprising them by coming home. He walked down the steps to greet them.
At the same time, it wasn't all restraint. Explaining his decision to kill Baghdadi and Soleimani, he said, "Our message to the terrorists is clear: You will never escape American justice. If you attack our citizens, you forfeit your life!"
This foreign policy has been confusing to many in the establishment, but it is a return to the foreign policy embraced by Republican presidents Eisenhower through Reagan, a form of peace through strength.
11. What Conservatives Might Not Like
While not as bad as his previous addresses to Congress or some other presidential addresses to Congress, the State of the Union is always a laundry list of unrestrained spending. This speech was no exception. And while conservatives may strongly support Space Force, Trump's terminology of "America's manifest destiny in the stars" could be troubling.
As per usual, there was no mention of attempts to rein in entitlement spending or other government growth. In fact, he said he would "protect" Social Security, which, while a crowd pleaser, is not conservative orthodoxy. Neither did he announce any plans on the debt or provide an update on his southern border wall.
12. A Hopeful National Identity
Apart from the dramatic vignettes of Americans in the galley, the strongest part of the speech was the ending, where President Trump spoke with pride about America's frontier spirit and work ethic. "This is our glorious and magnificent inheritance," he said. "We are Americans. We are the pioneers. We are the pathfinders. We settled the new world, we build the modern world, and we changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God."
This ending was both a tribute to American history and optimistic look forward into the future. "Our spirit is still young; the sun is still rising; God's grace is still shining; and my fellow Americans, the best is yet to come."
13. Bad Timing for Democrats
President Trump went into the State of the Union emboldened by his highest voter approval numbers of his presidency. Impeachment led Democratic favorability to decline while Republicans enjoyed majority support for the first time in recent memory. He is about to be acquitted, probably in a bipartisan fashion.
All of those numbers are bad for Pelosi and the Democratic Party she leads. In addition, they had a humiliating debacle of a caucus night in Iowa. The party botched its operation, meaning that the result is still uncertain. But what is known is that the establishment's favorite candidate, past Vice President Joe Biden, suffered a humiliating finish.
The decision to be hostile throughout the speech caused Democrats to look small and petty, particularly as President Trump spoke of big successes and big goals for the future. Pelosi appeared distracted during the speech, rifling through papers and chomping on her gums. Her ripping stunt at the end of the speech was extremely well received by the media and other partisans on Twitter, but was less likely to play well among average voters.