A president who has brought his party to heel flouting convention and tradition, Trump appealed to the nation in an audacious fashion, asking them to reward the substance of his term even if they reject his style. He sought to answer a question that may not even have crystallized in voters’ minds yet: Is America great again?
“Three years ago, we launched the great American comeback,” Trump opened, with his signature brand of triumphalism. “Tonight, I stand before you to share the incredible results.”
How voters assess the state of the union will have direct implications for Trump's reelection prospects in November. No longer a political outsider, he faces voters with a record, one that can be compared to the grandiose promises he made during the 2016 campaign and the exaggerated flourishes he frequently uses to herald administration achievements.
The speech came at a sudden high point for Trump. After a bruising impeachment case, he will be acquitted Wednesday with the full support of the Republican Party. Democrats launched their bid to challenge him in disarray, with the Iowa Democratic Party struggling to release results amid technical challenges.
Meanwhile, Trump’s reelection campaign is blowing past fundraising records and his polling is holding steady.
He put the economy front and center, highlighting low unemployment but glossing over the fact that he inherited a growing economy from his predecessor. He also repeatedly exaggerated claims about economic growth and the health of the manufacturing sector under his presidency, neglecting that manufacturing has slumped in the last year and economic growth last year, at 2.3%, was consistent with the average performance over the last decade.
Still, Republicans argued that any economic success is now Trump's to tout.
“Trump gets to own it and he did,” said Dave Kochel, a Republican political strategist.
The president's speech also included carefully calibrated overtures to many of the key constituencies he will need to win four more years in the White House, without the over-the-top rhetoric that has turned off some of those groups. An emotional reunion of a deployed solider and his family; a push for school choice and a ban on late-term abortions to appeal to evangelicals; and the mid-speech awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.
“Aimed at the middle but enough red meat to keep the right marching along," GOP consultant Chris Wilson said.
Trump appeared to be acutely aware of that dynamic, telling news anchors during a traditional pre-speech lunch that the address would be “extraordinarily low-key." And indeed he eschewed — for one night — his regular attacks on the Democrats who impeached him and will vote unsuccessfully to convict and remove him from office on Wednesday.
Still, he appeared to rebuff a handshake from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the start of his speech. The night ended with her dramatically ripping up the text of his speech as he exited the chamber to raucous Republican applause.
It was a dynamic the White House anticipated and welcomed, believing it painted Democrats as rooting against the gains Trump was claiming.
With the election shaping up to be a battle between Americans' assessment of how they feel about the state of the nation under Trump and whether they can sustain four more years of his unconventional presidency, it's little surprise that answering that first question — Is America great again? — formed the backbone of Trump’s address.
To Trump's detractors, the phrase has always been code for an effort to roll back gains in recent decades for minorities and women. His campaign hopes voters will instead view it as a version of the question Ronald Reagan asked a week before the 1980 election: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
In an effort to shape the answer to that question, Trump used the speech to highlight his efforts to bring down prescription drug prices, his administration’s record spending on defense and the passage of paid family leave for new parents in the federal workforce. He called for bipartisan action on infrastructure spending and touted reductions in opioid deaths in the upper Midwest states that were among the hardest hit by the nation’s drug crisis — and hold the key to his reelection.
“Our ancestors built the most exceptional republic ever to exist in all of human history,” Trump said. “And we are making it greater than ever before!”
If history is any guide, Trump’s reserved tone will last only as long as the evening of plaudits for his staid manner, before resuming to his acerbic Twitter swipes at his critics. That is what keeps national Republicans up at night and, even in the throes of a bitterly divided primary, gives Democrats some optimism.
Zeke Miller has covered the White House and national politics since 2011.
Follow Miller on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ZekeJMiller