Key takeaways from Trumps speech

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Media captionTrump slams ‘ridiculous partisan investigations’ as Nancy Pelosi looks on

It’s the halfway point of Donald Trump’s first term in office, and – for more than an hour – the president had the nation’s undivided attention. It was a speech that was billed as bipartisan, but beneath the flowery language were the same sharp divides and disagreements.

Here are four takeaways from the president’s address, plus analysis of the Democratic response.

New speech, same conflict

The feel-good moment of the 2019 State of the Union address occured when the president recognised the record number of women serving in the US Congress, prompting the white-clad legislators to stand and cheer in an unscripted show of exuberance.

It probably wasn’t lost on the president, however, that most of those cheering were Democrats – and that they won their recent elections by running against his policies.

They – along with most other Democrats – were decidedly not cheering for the rest of the president’s speech. They were stone-faced as the president spoke about immigration. They sat on their hands as he urged Congress to pass new anti-abortion legislation. There were audible groans when Mr Trump warned that “ridiculous partisan investigations” of his administration might threaten the “economic miracle” in the US.

While the president leavened his speech with applause lines and tributes to World War 2 veterans, childhood cancer patients and Holocaust survivors, the sharp divisions within US politics were also on full display.

The address even started with a not-so-subtle slight. The president began to speak without waiting for a formal introduction from House Speaker, and top Democrat, Nancy Pelosi – a break with tradition.

Ms Pelosi’s office tweeted responses and criticisms of the president’s speech while it was occurring, and several times her applause seemed less like an approbation than a sharp rebuke.

The two adversaries started the year locked in mortal partisan combat, and this State of the Union address gave no indication of an end to the conflict.

No immigration exit ramp

Perhaps the biggest issue looming over Mr Trump’s State of the Union Address was the ongoing confrontation between Democrats and Republicans over immigration policy and Mr Trump’s proposed border wall. It led to the recently concluded government shutdown and, if a compromise is not reached, could result in another shutdown a week from Friday.

The president, who made the wall a central focus of his 2016 campaign, has backed away from his call for it to stretch from along the entirety of the Mexican border. He’s no longer saying it will be a concrete structure, instead describing it on Tuesday as a “smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier”. And there was no mention of his pledge that Mexico would pay for the structure.

The president insisted, however, that “walls work and walls save lives”. Democrats have shown no indication that they will offer any sort of wall funding.

Something has to give.

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Media caption“You weren’t supposed to do that!” – Trump and Democratic women share an unexpected moment of unity

On Tuesday night, Mr Trump didn’t indicate a way out. There was no threat of a presidential “emergency declaration” that might allow Mr Trump to order the US military to build the wall without congressional approval. There were no signs of backing down.

Instead, Mr Trump concluded his roughly 17 minutes of immigration talk with an open-ended bit of vagary, placing this political bag of snakes firmly in the laps of congressional negotiators.

“Let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe,” he said.

A re-election pitch

With Democratic candidates – many sitting in the Capitol – already lining up to challenge Mr Trump in next year’s presidential election, this address could also be viewed as the president’s first big speech of his re-election campaign.

First, he listed his accomplishments. He spoke of an “unprecedented economic boom”, boasting of rising wages, 5.3 million new jobs, 600,000 new manufacturing jobs and low unemployment.

The credit for this, he said, was his tax cut and reductions in government regulation. And for the first time since 1955, he noted, the US is a net energy exporter, which he also took credit for (although the trends have been in place since the Obama-era fracking boom).

Mr Trump also mentioned a couple of other legislative successes, including criminal justice reform and a law that allows patients with terminal disease to try experimental drugs. If the economy is still good, however, the economy will be the heart of his re-election pitch.

A presidential campaign is about more than selling the candidate, however. It’s also about convincing the public the alternative is the wrong choice. And in a few lines on Tuesday night, the president gave a preview of what’s to come there, as well.

After talking about the “brutality” of Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan government, Mr Trump pivoted to an attack on his political opponents.

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Senator Bernie Sanders looks unimpressed by President Trump’s attack on socialist policies

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” he said. “America was founded on liberty and independence, not government coercion, domination and control.”

Recent polls have showing a growing number of Democrats adopting a more positive view of “socialism” compared to capitalism – although, in this case, they are supporting policies more in line with European socialism and not Venezuelan dictatorship.

The president, however, is making no such distinctions and, instead, appears poised to paint Democratic presidential hopefuls who are flocking to the left on issues like healthcare, education and income inequality as too radical to be trusted with power.

“We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” Mr Trump concluded to thunderous applause from the Republicans in the room.

Expect to hear similar lines again and again, all the way to the November 2020 election day.

The rest of the agenda

The political battles over the wall for the past two months have effectively crowded out any discussion of other presidential priorities. In his State of the Union address, the president made an effort to breathe life into some of his other policy priorities, including areas that could – in less polarised times – find bipartisan support.

Infrastructure investment, that long promised but never formally proposed presidential goal, again got a plug. He touted his newly negotiated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, although he never explicitly called on Congress to approve the deal, which it must do at some point. There were a couple of lines about lowering prescription drug prices and eliminating HIV transmission and childhood cancer.

When he turned to foreign policy – the final topic in his speech – the laundry list continued. He touted withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and warned that if a new deal can’t be reached, the US would “outspend and out-innovate” all others in nuclear weapons development.

He boasted of ongoing negotiations with North Korea, including a new summit with Kim Jong-un later this month. He also spoke of concluding “endless wars”, again asserting that the US will withdraw its military from Syrian and negotiate peace in Afghanistan. He gave no timeline for the process, however.

On foreign policy, the president does have broad powers. If Mr Trump can ignore the criticisms from lawmakers and occasional disapproval within his administration, he could realise some of his objectives.

When it comes to domestic policy, however, his proposals are effectively dead in the water. They were filler in the speech, delivered without enthusiasm. By tomorrow, most will be forgotten, as the whirlwind of modern American politics twists on.

The Democratic response

It’s getting difficult for Democrats to find a voice for the party who also doesn’t harbour, secretly or publicly, presidential ambitions.

Rather than give a leg up to an aspiring White House candidate, the Democrats turned to someone whose most recent run at elective office ended in defeat, Stacey Abrams of Georgia.

Although Ms Abrams isn’t a current officeholder, her campaign for Georgia governor did reflect where the Democratic Party is today – ethnically diverse, and politically progressive.

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Where the president’s address was light on new policy proposals, Ms Abrams Democratic response was packed policy. In around five minutes, she touched on gun control, the cost of higher education, climate change, healthcare reform and voting rights.

She blamed the Republicans for the government shutdown, criticised the president’s tax reform bill as being “rigged against “working people” and touted the contribution of immigrants to US society.

The Democratic Party has more than its share of internal disagreements. There are questions over how to accomplish universal healthcare and low-cost college education, how to address income inequality and racism, and what taxes to cut and raise. They have their own debates about foreign policy, made clear when some Democratic presidential contenders in the House chamber applauded Mr Trump’s line about endless foreign wars.

Ms Abrams response, however, smoothed over those divides and presented the Democratic Party as the compassionate alternative to Mr Trump and the Republicans.

“Our progress has always been found in the refuge, in the basic instinct of the American experiment, to do right by our people,” she said.

As the Democratic presidential contest heats up, however, the differences within the party – and between the personalities battling to be the face of that party – will be impossible to ignore.

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