WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing a divided Congress for the first time, President Donald Trump declared that the state of the union “strong" and urged Washington to govern “not as two parties, but as one nation.”
The president presented an optimistic vision of the nation, saying “our country is vibrant and our economy is thriving like never before.”
But his message clashed with the rancorous atmosphere he has helped cultivate in the nation’s capital, as well as the desire of most Democrats to block his path during his next two years in office.
The president's remarks previewed how he planned to defend himself as Democrats launch a flurry of investigations into his administration and personal finances.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he declared.
He added that “the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations” an apparent swipe at the special counsel probe into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
A Democratic rising star, Stacey Abrams, delivered the party’s response to Trump.
Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black woman governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for Senate. She countered Trump’s boast of a robust economy with a call to do more for working people.
“Rather than bringing back jobs, plants are closing, layoffs are looming and wages struggle to keep pace with the actual cost of living,” she said. “We owe more to the millions of everyday folks who keep our economy running: like truck drivers forced to buy their own rigs, farmers caught in a trade war, small business owners in search of capital, and domestic workers serving without labor protections."
Trump's primetime address comes at a critical moment in his presidency.
He pushed his party into a lengthy government shutdown over immigration they’d hoped to avoid, only to cave to Democrats. With another shutdown deadline looming, the president has few options for getting Congress to fund a border wall and he risks further alienating his own party if he tries to circumvent lawmakers by declaring a national emergency instead.
Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration his remarks. And though he offered a lengthy defense of his call for a border wall, he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.
“I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” he said.
He said Republicans and Democrats “must join forces” to confront what he’s calling “an urgent national crisis.”
Trump said Congress “has 10 days left to pass a bill that will fund our government, protect our homeland and secure our very dangerous southern border” ahead of a February 15 deadline.
Critics dispute the level of danger at the border.
As he stood before lawmakers, the president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind Trump as he spoke. Many House Democratic women wore white, the color favored by early 20th-century suffragettes. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Before the speech, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York accused Trump of “blatant hypocrisy,” saying the president may want to talk about unity Tuesday but “spends the other 364 days of the year dividing us.”
In his speech, Trump also announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a summit on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam.
Trump has been teasing the meeting in recent weeks. The two met last summer in Singapore, though that meeting only led to a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize.
Trump's address amounted to an opening argument for his re-election campaign. Polls show he has work to do, with his approval rating falling to just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months. He said the U.S. has “the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”
“In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom - a boom that has rarely been seen before," he said. "There’s been nothing like it. ... An economic miracle is taking place in the United States.”
However while the economy is healthy, it is not nearly one of the best in U.S. history.
The economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.8 percent last spring and summer, a solid pace. But it was just the fastest in four years. In the late 1990s, growth topped 4 percent for four straight years, a level it has not yet reached under Trump. And growth even reached 7.2 percent in 1984.
The president also touted an unprecedented record of women in the workforce, which, while true in raw figures, is not at a historical high in terms of participation rate.
Women’s labor force participation rate right now is 57.5 percent, according to the Labor Department. The rate has ticked up recently, but it was higher in 2012 and peaked in 2000 at roughly 60 percent.
Still, the president’s notes of optimism frequently touched a chord with his conservative supporters.
He was often greeted with cheers and standing ovations from the Republicans in the chamber, and on a number of occasions chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” filled the room.