By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
There is a pattern to State of the Union addresses: The president declares the state of the nation is glowing; the opposition party reacts with skepticism; and then the two sides fight over which side won the night.
With President Donald Trump there is an additional factor: Will he say or tweet something so outrageous that he kills the good buzz?
In other words, will Twitter Trump step on teleprompter Trump?
That the president gave a strong performance last week is clear. A CBS News poll found that 75 percent of viewers approved of the speech—and while supporters were more likely to watch the annual report to the nation than others, that margin is comfortably above the 46 percent of the popular vote Trump won in 2016 and suggests that many non-Trump voters liked the speech.
It helped that Trump’s joint address to Congress focused, not on Trump, but Americans and their future.
Ken Khachigian, who served as chief speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan, gave Trump high marks. The 80-minute speech, he said, was effective. Trump “put to use the oldest rule of communication, a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Khachigian’s favorite moment was when North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho waved his crutches—made for him by his father after a young Ji passed out from hunger while stealing coal from a train.
“The speech had a lot of substance to it,” Khachigian added, and showed a Trump with heart.
What’s more, Trump reached out to Democrats and sought their support for a compromise measure to extend President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. As a concession, Trump offered a path to citizenship to some 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors, through no fault of their own.
To the right, Trump had conceded a lot. Many DACA critics see a path to citizenship as amnesty. Also, Trump had offered that path to more than twice the 800,000 undocumented immigrants initially covered by Obama’s DACA—and that program was temporary and paved no path to citizenship.
In return, Trump argued Democrats would have to support his three pillars: funding for a border wall with Mexico, limits on “chain migration” to immediate family members and an end to the diversity visa lottery system.
It was impossible to not notice the Democrats’ cold reception to Trump’s proposition.
The Black Caucus’ reaction to Trump’s boasts about black unemployment hitting “its lowest rate ever recorded” was underwhelming. Only one caucus member applauded, and he stopped when he saw no others joining in.
“Why are @TheDemocrats not applauding job growth, higher wages and the drop in Latino and African-American unemployment?” tweeted pollster Frank Luntz, a conservative who has been critical of Trump.
Conservatives also broadcast photos of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., scowling and sucking on her teeth throughout the evening.
The next morning, Trump stayed off Twitter.
Thursday morning, last week, he returned to his favorite social media platform with three tweets. The first chastised Democrats for not producing a single vote in favor of the GOP tax bill. The second hit Pelosi for not working with him on DACA.
The third tweet trumpeted Trump’s belief that with 45.6 million viewers, his first State of the Union address had “the highest number in history.” But Trump was factually incorrect. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton drew higher audience numbers than Trump for their first State of the Union addresses. But then, the public has become inured to Trump’s factual errors in his favor.
Later, at a speech to Republicans in West Virginia, Trump pressed what he saw as his new advantage—the position where he appeared as a peacemaker and his opposition came off as belligerent and self-centered.
Trump noted, “And when I made that statement the other night, there was zero movement from the Democrats. They sat there, stone cold, no smile, no applause. You would have thought that, on that one, they would have, sort of, at least clapped a little bit. Which tells you, perhaps, they’d rather see us not do well than see our country do great.”
During the tenure of Presidents Clinton and Obama, that was a charge Democrats frequently lobbed at GOP critics — that they were rooting against a strong economy and against the country. This week, the table was turned.
The CBS News poll included more bad news for Democrats: 43 percent of Democrats approved of Trump’s speech. No cause for applause there.