It was part victory lap, part rallying cry, part bragging session, and part call for unity.
And it was all Trump. President Donald Trump’s first official State of the Union address encapsulated the contradictions and contradictory impulses of a presidency that has alternately soared and stalled, and has found itself distracted by the president’s own actions more often than not.
It was as if Trump described the presidency as he wished it would be, not as he does the job on a daily basis. He read faithfully from a teleprompter, telling a story of a confident nation on the march.
“This is our new American moment. There has never been a better time to start living the American dream,” Trump said.
The speech also showcased Trump the uniter, coming off a first year where he more comfortably and regularly played the divider. He stayed broad and hit patriotic themes, eschewing new policy details almost entirely.
“We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag,” the president said. “Together, we are rediscovering the American way.”
Trump found a compelling story to tell, at an urgent moment for his presidency and for his party. That’s built around a soaring economy, which Republicans hope will only be boosted by last year’s tax cut – Trump’s biggest legislative achievement to date.
But a story of togetherness is not the full story. The story being told daily and hourly in the national consciousness is undeniably more complicated for Trump and his allies.
It was left to the Democratic responder, Rep. Joe Kennedy, to remind last night’s television audience of the more complete picture.
“This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us – they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection,” said Kennedy, D-Mass.
Trump made no mention of Russia and the investigation that continues to envelop his presidency. Fresh headlines from that investigation – and from some congressional efforts to potentially undermine it – figure to crash back into the picture within hours.
The president staked out scant new policy ground. His broad calls for lower drug prices, better trade deals, more defense spending, paid family leave, and a massive infrastructure bill will all face resistance in Congress, and in public opinion.
The challenges and reality checks will hit soon enough. Trump described his immigration proposal as a “down-the-middle compromise,” but the White House knows it is asking a steep price just to legalize the status of the so-called Dreamers, who have the clock ticking on their legal status in the United States.
Trump said he was “extending an open hand” to work with Democrats on immigration, but he made clear in a few sentences where he was coming from.
“My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said.
That line stuck out in a night that the president struck a more moderate tone that he has for most of his presidency. But even that change in tone is more likely a pause than a pivot, if the first year of Trump’s time in office has taught anything.
Trump has shown that he has a good story to sell, when he puts his discipline into the sales pitch. It’s just that what he’s selling doesn’t necessarily match what he’s done.