State of the Union or Start of the 2020 Campaign?

President Trump delivered his State of the Union speech with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi peering over his shoulder. The speech offered a few olive branches to Democrats, but had the feel of a Trump campaign rally with applause and chants, making it seem like the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign.

President Trump delivered his State of the Union speech with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi peering over his shoulder. The speech offered a few olive branches to Democrats, but had the feel of a Trump campaign rally with applause and chants, making it seem like the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign.

Was President Trump’s speech Tuesday night the state of the union or the start of the 2020 presidential campaign? Most observers think it was the latter.

Trump opened the speech with a rosy rendition of the US economy and declared the state of the nation as good. From there, he spent more than an hour hitting his favorite campaign themes – a border wall, limits on abortion, bringing troops home and preventing the spread of socialism.

He offered some olive branches to Democrats for bipartisan cooperation on an infrastructure investment package, steps to reduce prescription drug prices, ending HIV, fighting childhood cancer and protecting people with pre-existing health conditions. But the largest chunk of his 80-minute speech was devoted to immigration, once more stoking fear about caravans careening their way to the vulnerable US-Mexico border. Trump described the trail of sexual abuse women and children endure in their asylum-seeking journey and implied a border wall would prevent that abuse by discouraging them from taking the trip. And he introduced family members of victims allegedly killed by illegal immigrants and announced he was sending more US troops to the border.

The new divided-government dynamic was on full display as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s facial expressions, which included a few eye rolls and head shakes, loomed over Trump’s shoulder as he spoke. He drew the most disapproving look when he complained about “ridiculous partisan investigations.” Pelosi gave Trump what may be described as sarcastic hand clap when he mentioned pre-existing conditions. In comments the day after of the speech, Pelosi said Trump’s reference to investigations was an “all-out threat.” A presidential historian noted President Nixon called for an end of the Watergate investigation in his state of the union speech just months before his resignation in the face of almost-certain impeachment.

Unlike his previous state of the union speech, the House chamber was filled with a lot more Democrats. A significant chunk of the Democratic caucus seated immediately in front of the podium were newly elected congresswomen wearing white in honor of suffragettes. Trump drew a hearty round of applause when he noted there was a historic number of women seated in Congress this term. The white-clad and highly diverse group stood and chanted “USA,” in a not-so-subtle rejoinder to an earlier GOP caucus chant when Trump talked about his border wall.

The evening had the feel of a one-sided political debate with an audience teeming with declared or soon-to-declare Democratic presidential candidates. Cameras repeatedly panned the room to capture reactions to the speech by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker who have declared their 2020 candidacies and Senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar who are expected to enter the race. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, also a declared candidate, witnessed the speech. 

The campaign rally feel was underscored by repeated standing ovations, mostly by Republicans. The campaign-leaning focus of the speech could be measured in what Trump didn’t talk about, including the 35-day partial federal government shutdown that polls indicate voters hold him largely accountable. He also didn’t mention his administration’s controversial policies about separating families seeking asylum at the border or his cross-wise relationship with his own US intelligence officials. There were relatively few specific proposals.

Trump’s biggest stretch of the truth was his claim that his election was all that stood between a major war with North Korea. He took credit for improved relations and said he and Kim Jong-un would hold a second summit in late February in Vietnam. The results from the first summit remain in doubt. 

The lengthy Trump speech pushed the Democratic response, given by former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, into the late hours of the evening. Abrams gave a spirited 10-minute rebuttal that touched on Democratic priorities – support for families, economic security and ballot fairness. Sanders, Harris and potential presidential candidate Joe Biden gave their own responses to Trump’s speech, reinforcing the picture of an early 2020 political face-off. 

Another clue to the political backdrop of the presidential speech and Democratic rebuttal was the specter of fact-checking. NPR fact-checked both – Trump and Abrams.