A Few Thoughts on the State of the Union Address

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 6, 2019 · 8:51 PM EST

I did something dangerous Tuesday night. I watched the State of the Union and the Democratic response on my own, without Twitter as a crutch. I even watched the C-SPAN feed on my phone in order to avoid commentary from the networks and cable channels.

My goal was to avoid groupthink and try to formulate some coherent thoughts and analyses without being persuaded by my friends in the media. Here’s what stuck out to me.

Unclear impact
Everyone take a deep breath. It’s going to take a few days before we know whether President Donald Trump’s speech was effective and changed public opinion. It matters more what real voters thought about the event than talking heads on TV. Initial polls taken Tuesday night by CNN and CBS were positive for the president, but it’s much better to wait for some traditional, live-caller surveys to see if Trump’s job approval changed and if any movement lasts more than a few days. I start as skeptical that the State of the Union will fundamentally alter the political dynamic surrounding the president because nothing appears to fundamentally alter the political dynamic surrounding the president. He’s a polarizing figure.

The moment
I think the most memorable moment was when the Democratic women of the House, dressed in suffragette white, stood in raucous applause to the president’s mention of women getting jobs and the record number of female lawmakers. It was stunning because everyone was happy, but for different reasons. The Democratic women took it as public acknowledgement of their achievement and an opportunity to celebrate their new majority. The president thought they were applauding him and, with both parties cheering and chanting “U-S-A,” it felt like a campaign rally, where Trump is most comfortable.

Pivot to bipartisanship?
In the beginning and end of the speech, Trump struck a conciliatory tone and challenged Congress to reach for greatness, set aside partisanship and embrace an exciting new journey. It sounded like the type of speech most people expect a president to give, but those passages can’t be viewed in a vacuum. This State of the Union was delayed because of partisan bickering. And while some people heard a call to bipartisanship, Democrats heard the president call them soft on gangs, socialists, and baby killers, too focused on investigating him.

Can anything get done?
About an hour into the almost 90-minute address, there was a list of issues that could receive bipartisan support: prescription drug prices, eliminating the HIV epidemic in the next 10 years, more funding to counter childhood cancer, paid family leave, and, predictably, infrastructure. But the question is whether both parties can move beyond the stalemate surrounding funding the government and the fight over the border wall.

Two speeches, two Americas
I thought Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams did a fine job in avoiding a Saturday Night Live-worthy gaffe or moment. It’s a hard speech to give and she did what she needed to do. But what stuck out to me was her focus on an entirely different set of issues compared to Trump’s speech. She talked about furloughed federal workers, “children in cages,” gun violence, climate change, judges, and access to voting. I don’t think the president talked about any of those things, at least not in the same context. The parties can’t agree on what problems to focus on, let alone what solutions are necessary.

Faces of change
Another memorable moment was briefly toward the beginning of the speech when Trump talked about cooperation, compromise and common good. The camera cut away to a shot of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III on his feet, clapping, while New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sat behind him doing nothing. It’s a great example of the different ways Democrats approach the president, especially given the number of Democrats in the new Congress who represent areas that support Trump. It also represents the challenge Democrats will face balancing varying political realities moving forward.

Foreshadowing the wall
As expected, the president did not declare a national emergency on the southern border, but he did lay out the case he’ll likely make if that time comes. With stats and stories about crime and MS-13, you can expect to hear much of the same after the Feb. 15 deadline, if Congress doesn’t come up with an agreement that he finds sufficient.

The most awkward moment
Trump voiced his disapproval about investigations twice during his speech, with mixed results. The first time was in a list of complaints against Democrats, and Republicans in the chamber applauded the line. But the president immediately came back to the point and mentioned investigations again, and there was hardly any applause or reaction from either side. I thought it was going to be another Jeb Bush “Please clap” moment. I think it’s an indicator that while Republicans might not agree with the investigations, they’re not going to give a standing ovation to the president on a call to end them.