President Trump tried to shed the polarizing image and words that have stunted his popularity and thwarted his ability to pass bipartisan legislation, recasting himself on Tuesday as a unifying figure in his first State of the Union address.
“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,” he said at the top of his roughly 80-minute speech. “This is really the key: These are the people we were elected to serve.”
It was a striking difference in tone for a president who came into office decrying “American carnage” at his inaugural, and since then has often spoken and tweeted in harsh terms about his perceived enemies, including lawmakers of both parties and his vanquished opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Trump continued to warn against what he sees as the scourge of illegal immigration. But he cloaked the warnings with soft descriptions of the American character, describing the nation as “one team, one people and one American family,” and suggested immigrant communities actually would benefit from his policies.
He alluded to one frequent target — the mostly black NFL players who have protested police violence and other racial injustice by kneeling for the national anthem — but did so only obliquely, not mentioning them as he usually does but instead emphatically equating reverence for service members with “why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
As he reeled off natural disasters and tragedies of the last year, including the shooting at a congressional baseball practice that nearly killed a Republican House leader, he emphasized that “we came together, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as representatives of the people.”
The speech came in what’s become a familiar spot for Trump: at a historic low in polls, furious over the Russia investigation and frustrated that he is not getting credit for a good economy.
Trump, like other presidents facing troubles, is hoping the high-profile, nationally televised speech will help him move past the tumult in his White House and the shadow of the Russia investigation — an inquiry into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia’s election meddling and his own alleged acts of obstruction — that has clouded his first year. Trump refrained from mentioning the investigation.
“This is in fact our new American moment,” Trump said, repeating a phrase used by Clinton to describe President Obama’s foreign policy when she served as his secretary of State. “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream.”
Trump hammered the theme of “building a safe, strong, proud America"; which fits loosely around policy proposals for a $1.5-trillion plan to build a “safe, fast, reliable and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve”; an increase in military spending, and an overhaul of the immigration system. His controversial immigration plan would sharply cut the number of legal immigrants while allowing a path to citizenship for young “Dreamers” who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Trump framed his desire to restrict immigration as a security issue, arguing that a porous border has increased the threat of terrorism and drug trafficking. Immigrant advocates say Trump is creating scapegoats, and deepening racial and ethnic divides.
The president, however, contended that he wants to be a uniter. “Tonight I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, color and creed,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump told a group of network television anchors meeting at the White House that his biggest lesson since taking office more than a year ago has been tempering his profit-centered business instinct with the need to show “heart” in his governing decisions.
“What I’m doing now, a lot of it is heart, a lot of it is compassion, a lot of it is far beyond money — such as immigration,” he said, adding, “If I was doing this purely from an economic standpoint, I would sit down and tell you in one second what I’d be doing, OK?”
President Trump gestures as he finishes his first State of the Union address.(Win McNamee / Associated Press)
President Trump delivers the State of the Union address.(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump delivers the State of the Union address.(EPA / Shutterstock)
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
(EPA / Shutterstock)
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Fred and Cindy Warmbier are acknowledged during the State of the Union address. Their son Otto was imprisoned by North Korea for 17 months, freed and days later died in a coma.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) acknowledges President Trump’s introduction during the State of the Union address.(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
President Trump delivers the State of the Union address.(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
Rebecca Holets looks up at her husband, Albuquerque Police Officer Ryan Holets, as they stand with First Lady Melania Trump during the State of the Union. The Holets adopted the baby of a heroin-addicted homeless woman.(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
First Lady Melania Trump greets Preston Sharp during the State of the Union address. Sharp organized the placement of over 40,000 U.S. flags on soldiers’ graves.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
President Trump shakes hands with Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
(Win McNamee / Associated Press)
President Trump, backed by Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan, is welcomed for his State of the Union speech.(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., left, and Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch listen during the State of the Union address.(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump arrives for the State of the Union address.(Win McNamee / Getty Images)
President Trump arrives for the State of the Union address.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump walks into the House Chamber as he arrives for his State of the Union address.(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)
First Lady Melania Trump acknowledges the crowd.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Jared Kushner, second from left, and wife Ivanka Trump await the speech in the House chamber.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan confer before the speech.(EPA/Shutterstock)
Democratic congresswomen dress in black to show their support for the #MeToo movement at tonight’s State of the Union address.(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA/Shutterstock)
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) stands at the lectern before the State of the Union address.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), right, speaks with people as they wait for President Trump to deliver his first State of the Union address.(EPA / Shutterstock)
From left, Republican Sens. Roy Blunt, John Thune, Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn arrive to speak with reporters before the State of the Union.(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
Lawmakers wear black clothing and Kente cloth in protest before the State of the Union.(EPA / Shutterstock)
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, center, Democrat from Florida, awaits the State of the Union address.(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)
Members of Congress arrive for the State of the Union address in the chamber of the House.(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
“Dreamers” who will be attending President Trump’s first State of the Union address take selfies before a news conference in Washington.(Pete Marovich / Getty Images)
Eleven months ago, Trump addressed Congress and a prime-time TV audience from the Capitol, but by tradition a president’s first report on the state of the union — based on a constitutional requirement — does not occur until after a year in office.
Besides emphasizing immigration and infrastructure, Trump nodded to other priorities, including an undefined plan to reform federal prisons. He talked about solving the opioid crisis, yet called for greater law enforcement rather than new funding or programs to combat the epidemic of addiction.
Trump announced that he would keep open the U.S. military prison camp on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, reversing another Obama administration policy and signaling a return to military detentions for captured terrorism suspects. The once-populous camp now holds just 41 prisoners.
Though presidents traditionally use these speeches to lay out their vision early in the year, they also claim credit for first-year achievements. Trump spoke about the economy and his $1.5-trillion tax cut, boasting about the rising stock market and low unemployment.
He also repeated his contention that his policies brought black unemployment to a historic low, when that development — like other economic gains — reflects a trend that began in Obama’s first term, after the Great Recession.
As Republicans rose and applauded Trump’s assertion about black employment, members of the Congressional Black Caucus sat stone-faced; many wore African print shawls in apparent protest of Trump’s recent slur calling the nations in Africa “shithole” countries.
In a recent Pew poll, 41% of Americans rated the economy as excellent or good, one of the strongest such ratings in a decade. Yet many Americans do not give Trump credit. On average, polls show his approval at about 40%, lower than the standing of any of his predecessors in the modern era after a year in office.
“Two words I don’t think we’ll hear tonight: Thanks, Obama,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said before the speech. Schumer, like most Democrats, sat glum-faced through much of the address.
Other polls have shown a majority of Americans believe the tax cuts favor high-earners, contrary to Trump’s claim — repeated in his address — that they mostly benefit the middle class.
Administration officials say the tax cut will grow more popular as Trump sells it and as the large reduction in corporate rates leads to higher middle-class wages. Economists, including at the Federal Reserve, have more modest expectations, predicting a small short-term effect on economic growth.
Trump named the tax cuts, reduced regulations and what he calls an end to the “war on American energy” — including coal — among promises fulfilled. He credited the tax cuts with prompting businesses to give bonuses for roughly 3 million workers, though he exaggerated the amounts as “thousands and thousands of dollars” when most are $1,000. Some wage hikes and bonuses were negotiated in union contracts or planned by corporations before the tax cuts became law.
Trump also trumpeted success in beating back the militant group Islamic State, while conceding that “there is much more work to be done.”
“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” he said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of the past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
Trump, like every president since Ronald Reagan, invited guests who reflect aspects of his agenda to sit with the first lady. Among those joining Melania Trump were Americans said to be benefiting from the new tax cuts, parents who lost children to gang violence, a Marine who reenlisted after losing his eyes and legs, and a man who led a volunteer rescue effort for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Democrats had their own guests, dominated by a number of “Dreamers.”
For all the attention paid to them, these prime-time addresses seldom move public opinion much. And Trump has had a particularly difficult time sticking to a message, often creating new controversies within days of a well-received speech — like the one last February, which he followed with an explosive tweet alleging without evidence that Obama had wiretapped his phones.
Times staff writers Joseph Tanfani and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
9:20 p.m.: This article was updated with more quotes from the speech and additional details.
7:15 p.m.: This article was updated with the beginning of the speech.
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated with excepts from the president’s speech.
This article was originally published at 3:40 p.m.