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What To Make Of The State Of The Union


Well, last night had all the pomp and circumstance that only a State of the Union can provide. President Trump delivered his second last night, weaving together partisan attacks and some calls for unity.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We meet tonight at a moment of unlimited potential. As we begin a new Congress, I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans. Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.


GREENE: Now, this was, of course, Trump's first address to a divided Congress, and that division was on display all night as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was seated just behind the president. Joining us to talk about everything here is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who took in the speech last night. Hi there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, David.

GREENE: So what, if anything, did the president accomplish last night, besides giving this big speech?

LIASSON: I think the president accomplished one big thing. He told us a lot about how he views the 2020 re-election campaign. This speech was the opening salvo of the 2020 campaign. He doubled down on a lot of themes that you're hearing him talk about and tweeting about - immigration, immigrants coming over the border to kill us, abortion, Democrats are the party of late-term abortion, socialism.

And on the other hand, embedded in that speech, which had a lot of familiar themes, was something that could end up being a pivot or could not - some olive branches to Democrats where he talked about infrastructure, prescription drug prices, paid family leave - didn't really talk about how he wanted to accomplish those, but he did at least include those proposals and some bipartisan rhetorical flourishes.

GREENE: Going back and forth, though, between calls for unity and...

LIASSON: Yes, toggling back and forth.

GREENE: Toggling. I mean, does that mean it's a work in progress, or is that a well-formed strategy that we're probably going to see going forward?

LIASSON: I think that the president understood that he needed to plant a flag with some kind of rhetorical calls for unity and bipartisanship because he is blamed for so much of the division in American life. So that was important. A lot of that stuff was right up at the top, where the audience is the biggest. But the president is sticking to his knitting. I mean, this is the way he won the first time, by energizing his base and talking about the issues that are important to them, even if they're not top issues or even disagreed with by the majority of people. So he's going to stick to that.

GREENE: Well, let's get to some specifics here. The president made his case for a border wall. Nancy Pelosi, of course, had called a border wall immoral. The president sort of flipped that around, making his own moral argument.


TRUMP: Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate. It is actually very cruel.

GREENE: So, Mara, is the president any closer to getting that wall after last night?

LIASSON: I don't think he's closer to getting the wall. The big question is, what is Congress willing to give him that he might be able to call a wall? The bipartisan committee of congressional appropriators are meeting. They have a deadline of February 15. They're trying to come up with something. The president has thrown cold water on that effort. He says it's probably a waste of time. And he's hinted that he probably will have to declare a national emergency and try to build the wall himself. Interestingly, he did not talk about that last night, even though he said repeatedly he feels that he has set the stage perfectly for a declaration of emergency. He did say at one point in the speech, I will build it.

GREENE: Nor did he talk about the government shutdown that we could see in the middle of this month if the parties don't work out some sort of agreement on immigration.

LIASSON: I think that's unlikely. The government shutdown was such a loser for the president. Everyone I've talked to said it's more likely that he would declare a national emergency, try to build the wall himself, than he would shut down the government again.

GREENE: He did not mention special counsel Robert Mueller, but he did bring up investigations in general. And this was one of the moments where I was just watching Nancy Pelosi's body language. She sort of shook her head as he talked about this.


TRUMP: An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.


GREENE: Is that some wishful thinking on the part of the president here, Mara?

LIASSON: Well, I thought that was interesting. At one point, he said, we can either have war and prosperity, or we can have investigations. What was interesting about that is Nancy Pelosi tweeted on her account - presumably written by a staffer - in real time. Right when the president said that, she tweeted out that, of course, it's congressional - it's Congress' constitutional responsibility to investigate. So clearly, it's wishful thinking. Investigations are going to happen.

GREENE: One other thing I want to talk about - the economy. Unemployment is very low right now - 4 percent - but there are some places in the country still hurting. And Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, he invited Dave Green. I like that name - no relation.

LIASSON: (Laughter).

GREENE: Of the United Auto Workers to the speech last night, and here's what Dave Green had to say about what he heard.

DAVE GREEN: Now, the president talked about all these jobs that they've created. Well, I beg to differ that, you know, everything is great, and there's a bunch of jobs being created. We certainly do not feel that in the Mahoning Valley.

GREENE: So, Mara, I mean, the president has a good economy right now. Is his message resonating? 'Cause that's so important for him.

LIASSON: Well, a good economy is really important for him, and he - that's probably the best thing he's got going for him. But he has to keep that economy - good economy going. He has to make sure that it doesn't get dragged down by slowing growth globally, by trade wars, by perhaps - I don't think there'll be another shutdown, but that certainly gave the economy a little hit. But that is really important for his re-election. He's got to keep that good economy going.

GREENE: All right. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson talking about the president's speech last night. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.