WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump leaned hard on the strong U.S. economy as he made the case for his reelection in the State of the Union address — and he threw in a few theatrical flourishes.
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Trump has often seemed to conduct his presidency as the ultimate reality TV show. He understands drama and suspense. He plays to emotions. He never seems to tire of the camera and attention.
But even for him, the production of this State of the Union speech, just as he begins to aggressively campaign for a second term, was taken to a level beyond any predecessor.
He told a young girl she would get a scholarship to attend a better school. He announced that a soldier had returned home to surprise his wife and children in the balcony reserved for the president's special guests. And he dramatically asked his wife, Melania, to drape the Medal of Freedom around the neck of conservative radio stalwart Rush Limbaugh.
The speech was hardly memorable. The stagecraft won't soon be forgotten.
IT'S STILL THE ECONOMY, STUPID
Trump delivered his speech of nearly 80 minutes without specifically mentioning the reality of one of the most consequential events of his presidency: his impeachment trial in the Senate, where he is expected to be acquitted Wednesday.
Trump made clear he is staking his re-election on the state of the economy. Deploying his penchant for superlatives, Trump said the American economy had never been stronger. The subtext was clear: He was asking voters who might not like him personally to judge him on whether they believed their own financial fortunes had improved with him as president.
His message drew from Ronald Reagan's question to the country when he ran for re-election in 1984: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
A president who often talks about issues in terms of profit and loss also extolled the rise in the stock market and the increase in incomes of those in lower earning brackets.
“This is a blue-collar boom,” he said.
Yet Trump's chest-thumping included some misleading stats, especially as he tried to paint the state of the U.S. economy before he took office in dismal terms. He failed to acknowledge that manufacturing has slumped in the past year, after having advanced in the prior two years. The president’s tariffs regime and slower growth worldwide hurt the sector in ways that suggest Trump’s policies robbed it of some of its previous strength.
NOT EVEN A CLAPBACK
There were no niceties. No efforts to hide the tension.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi extended a handshake to the president.
He turned away.
She gave a look.
He started into his speech.
Pelosi, wearing the white suit of the suffragettes that has become a lasting fashion statement of the House Democratic women, who swept to power in the 2018 election, stopped there with the niceties.
She delivered just a curt introduction to the president of the United States and then busied herself with paperwork. He talked.
She raised an eyebrow here, smirked some there, as Trump told the chamber, and the American people, of his accomplishments.
The speaker, whose House impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, didn’t need to say much more.
The House has spoken. The Senate, though, is set to acquit Trump of the two charges Wednesday.
As she presided over the chamber, Pelosi wore a gold pin shaped as the speaker’s mace, which she often puts on for times like these.
When Trump finished, Pelosi dramatically ripped a copy of the speech in half.
LIONIZING RUSH LIMBAUGH, PLAYING TO BASE
It was the kind of high drama moment that animates Trump. In a gesture that left nearly everyone — including its recipient —- looking dumbfounded, Trump announced he was giving Limbaugh the nation's highest civilian honor.
Limbaugh, who announced this week that he had advanced lung cancer, appeared stunned, his jaw visibly dropping as Trump made the announcement. Others sat in silence as first lady Melania Trump draped the medal around his neck on the spot.
“Thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country,” Trump told Limbaugh, commending “all that you have done for our Nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire."
Honoring Limbaugh was one of the clearest examples of Trump making yet another play to his political base. But he reminded them of many others, including his appointment of conservative judges, fervent support for gun rights, opposition to abortion and what he called defense of “religious liberty.”
“In America, we do not punish prayer. We don't tear down crosses. We don't ban symbols of faith,” he said. “In America, we celebrate faith.”
The president always commands the stage at the State of the Union, but Democrats hit the president on the issue that most voters in their party say is their top priority: health care.
And with good reason. Trump tried to label Democrats' health care plans as “socialism" that would deprive millions of Americans of their private health insurance, a reprise of his attack on the health care plan offered by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Democrats were prepared. They pre-emptively decried the administration's support for a federal lawsuit that would gut President Barack Obama's health care law. “We all want to tell the president, 'Drop the lawsuit, drop the lawsuit, drop the lawsuit,'” Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Democratic lawmakers said in unison.
Trump also said he would always protect “pre-existing conditions” even though gutting Obamacare would do that.
A “PRESIDENT” IN WAITING
Foreign policy was a small portion of Trump's speech. Among the surprise guests invited by the White House was Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has been seeking international help in his bid to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office.
“Maduro is an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people. But Maduro's grip of tyranny will be smashed and broken,” Trump said, praising Guaidó as the "true and legitimate President of Venezuela" and a “man who carries with him the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of all Venezuelans.”
In addition to offering a major public boost to Guaidó, the move also helped Trump bolster a message he has used to hit the Democratic candidates: that socialist policies are dangerous.
“Socialism destroys nations.” he said. "But always remember, freedom unifies the soul. ”
The Trump administration was among the first governments to throw its weight behind Guaidó. Yet Maduro remains in power nonetheless.
OBAMA LIVES RENT-FREE IN TRUMP'S HEAD
Trump started with an upbeat address, but could not resist criticism of his predecessor, even when the context is unclear. “If we hadn't reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration,” Trump said, “the world would not now be witnessing this great economic success.”
The economic recovery from the Great Recession that started in 2008 began under President Barack Obama, whose own record for job creation matched Trump's.