(AFP) – President Donald Trump appealed Tuesday for national unity and strong borders in his first State of the Union address, calling for “one American family” after a year marred by acrimony, division and scandal.
Delivering his biggest speech of the year, this most polarizing of presidents sought to put the spotlight on a robust economy, while pointedly calling on a packed joint session of Congress to enact tough curbs on immigration.
“Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve,” he said.
“Tonight, I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be. All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family.”
Trump’s opening tone was uncharacteristically conciliatory, although it bridged no compromise on his drive to reduce immigration — which he painted as responsible for a plethora of social ills.
He touched on a range of foreign policy issues — including, in an emotive moment, offering the spotlight to crippled North Korean amputee defector Ji Seong-ho, who waved his crutches in the air as he received a prolonged standing ovation.
Trump warned that Pyongyang’s “reckless” nuclear drive could “very soon” threaten the US homeland, while also eyeing the geopolitical challenge posed by adversaries China and Russia.
But Trump’s State of the Union, the third longest on record at one hour 20 minutes, was overwhelmingly focused on domestic concerns.
Among those looking on were dozens of cross-armed Democratic lawmakers, some decked in black to honor the victims of sexual harassment and still others wearing butterfly stickers in support of immigrants — two social issues that more than any others have roiled America in the age of Trump.
– Melania back in public eye –
Also in the audience were members of Trump’s own family including the first lady, Melania, who recently cancelled a joint trip to Davos, Switzerland and has not been seen with her husband in public since reports alleged he paid porn actress Stormy Daniels hush money over an affair, which the White House denies.
Breaking with tradition, the first couple arrived separately to the Capitol, because, according to the first lady’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham, she was accompanying guests.
Over the years the State of the Union address, a set piece of the American political calendar, has lost some of its impact and pizzazz.
But the primetime address, watched by as many as 40 million Americans, was still a once-in-a-year opportunity for Trump to speak to the nation and mend his sunken approval ratings, languishing around 40 percent.
A CNN poll released afterward suggested people who watched the address were underwhelmed by it.
Seeking to enliven his own base, Trump spoke at length on the need for immigration reform, drawing hisses from the opposition as he equated immigrants with criminality and economic tension and spoke of “chain migration.”
For decades, he lamented, “open borders” had allowed “drugs and gangs to pour into” the United States. He again called for the construction of a border wall that remains unfunded in Congress.
“They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
Two couples whose daughters were murdered by MS-13, a Salvadoran gang, were among those joining the first lady to watch the address.
“The United States is a compassionate nation” he said, “but as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities.”
– Wall Street Don –
The 71-year-old real estate mogul and reality TV star touted a long bull run on Wall Street and improving growth rates, something the White House has dubbed a “Trump bump.”
“The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion in value,” he said, even though that narrative suffered a setback Tuesday when stocks posted their biggest drop in eight months amid fears of a bubble.
Trump also lifted his economic gaze beyond the United States, calling for “fair” trade and declaring that “the era of economic surrender is over.”
“America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our wealth — our nation has lost its wealth but we’re getting it back so fast.”
And there was a partisan-tinged focus on terror, which had been a central message of his campaign.
Trump vowed to keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open — anathema to Democrats and many Republicans.
The CNN poll of people who watched the speech found 48 percent said they had a “very positive” impression of it. That compared to 57 percent after Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address, the network said. Trump’s number was the lowest since CNN first started conducting the poll in 1998, it added.
Offering the Democratic rebuttal to Trump’s address, Joe Kennedy — grandson of Bobby Kennedy — said it would be “easy to dismiss this past year as chaos, as partisanship, as politics.”
“But it’s far, far bigger than that,” he said. “This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us, they’re targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”