OP-ED: Trump’s State of the Union was a campaign speech

Michael McGough
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, as Vice President Mike Pence ad House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., listen. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Even if Republicans in the House chamber hadn’t begun shouting “Four more years,” it would have been obvious that President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address was a campaign speech by another name.

It was also — Democrats take note — an effective one, despite exaggerations and dubious claims that are already being dissected by fact-checkers.

Granted, Trump’s emphasis on optimism and his talk about “building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society” was laced with familiar resentment and score-settling.

“The days of our country being used, taken advantage of and even scorned by other nations are long behind us,” he bragged. Another familiar theme was the claim that he had succeeded where President Obama had failed. (As always, he exaggerated the extent to which the economic recovery is attributable to his administration.)

And, yes, there were also appeals to his political base, including an attack on California’s “sanctuary” policies for immigrants and a promise to protect prayer in schools and the right to keep and bear arms. Trump also boasted about the conservative judges he had appointed, name-checking Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, his appointees to the Supreme Court, who were in the audience.

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But even if a snarl seemed to lurk under the calls for national unity, Trump offered a message designed to appeal to the sort of Democrats who defected to his cause in 2016. That pitch went beyond the claim that he has presided over a “blue collar boom.”

Trump said that “we will always protect your Medicare and your Social Security.” And he attacked those “who want to take away your health care, take away your doctor and abolish private insurance entirely.” He promised: “We will never let socialism destroy American health care!”

Never mind the complication that Medicare itself is arguably a socialist health care program. Trump was clearly appealing to voters — including union members — who might be put off by “Medicare for All” as proposed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Pete Buttigieg, who proposes the less radical “Medicare for all who want it,” can point to Trump’s rant as a reason for Democrats to support him. But all the Democratic candidates should come away from this speech with a recognition that Trump will be a formidable opponent.

— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.