For an hour and a half, President Donald Trump used his third State of the Union speech to remind Republicans why they supported him in the past and why they will stand with him in November.
“From the instant I took office, I moved rapidly to revive the U.S. economy — slashing a record number of job killing-regulations, enacting historic and record-setting tax cuts, and fighting for fair and reciprocal trade agreements,” he boasted. “Our agenda is relentlessly pro-worker, pro-family, pro-growth, and, most of all, pro-American.”
This is the message Republicans want the president to focus on over the next nine months as they cling to their Senate majority and dream of retaking the House. This is the president vulnerable GOP members and upstart GOP challengers want to appear with on the campaign trail.
But it’s also the message Republicans wanted Trump to focus on prior to the 2018 midterm elections. He too often veered into talk about migrant caravans making their way to the Southern border and Democrats took the House majority with a net 40-seat gain.
For the State of the Union, Trump stayed within the confines of tradition and largely stuck to the script. But on Twitter and at campaign rallies, his economic message is often clouded by name-calling and score-settling. It’s behavior likely to turn off independent voters otherwise turned on by the economy.
For Republicans dreaming that Tuesday was a turning point to a more disciplined leader, there’s little chance the 73-year-old president is going to change his ways, particularly since he sees his efforts as successful.
Trump entered the House chamber on Tuesday night with a 49 percent job approval rating, the highest in Gallup’s polling since he took office. A deeper look, however, reveals a president that is still polarizing and a country still divided.
In the same survey, conducted Jan. 16-29, 50 percent of respondents disapproved of the job the president is doing. Fifty percent said Trump deserves reelection and 50 percent said he does not. And opinion is divided sharply along party lines. When it comes to the president’s job rating, 94 percent of Republicans approved while 92 percent of Democrats disapproved. The 87-point gap is the largest Gallup has measured in any poll to date.
The president’s job rating on the economy continues to be distinctly better. It was 63 percent approve/35 percent disapprove, according to the January poll.
That presents Democrats with one of their biggest challenges of the 2020 elections. They must present a contrast to Trump without looking out of touch by downplaying a humming economy. On Tuesday night, vulnerable Democratic members such as Max Rose of New York and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan were found applauding at times (contrary to a majority of their Democratic colleagues), and sitting (contrary to all of their Republican colleagues).
By focusing exclusively on the economy, Trump could put political pressure on the 30 House Democrats who currently represent districts he carried in 2016. But the three dozen vulnerable Democrats facing competitive races, as rated by Inside Elections, haven’t felt much heat thus far, considering the vast majority of them voted to impeach the president. Democrats have also been emboldened by relentless fundraising and the lack of strong GOP challengers.
The president’s speech also laid out Republicans’ blueprint for the general election. In the face of a precarious presidential referendum, the GOP wants to present Americans with a choice.
“If forcing American taxpayers to provide unlimited free health care to illegal aliens sounds fair to you, then stand with the radical left,” the president explained. “But if you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens.”
“But as we work to improve Americans’ health care, there are those who want to take away your health care, take away your doctor and abolish private insurance entirely,” Trump said, setting up another choice. “One hundred thirty-two lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our health care system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million Americans. To those watching at home tonight, I want you to know: We will never let socialism destroy American health care.”
The frame of the election is one of the fundamental fights of 2020, and virtually any other election.
The president’s exchange with Democrats on the prescription drug issue is a good example of future fights. Trump called for bipartisan work, while Democrats stood and shouted “HR 3,” highlighting their own bill that seeks to bring down costs but is stalled in the Senate. It’s an example of an issue Democrats will highlight as work getting done while Republicans total up the hours, days, weeks, and months spent on impeachment.
There were moments when the president stepped back from the heated rhetoric designed to trigger Democrats. His talk about the bipartisan U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement and a law to provide new parents in the federal workforce paid family leave stand out as issues that Republican and Democratic members, candidates and voters can get behind.
But each olive branch was often balanced by a partisan attack. Awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to one of the most conservative and polarizing figures in recent history and highlighting the large number of federal judges confirmed by the Mitch McConnell-led Senate was a good way to poison the well with Democrats.