NEW YORK (AP) — From the biggest stage in U.S. politics, President Donald Trump made clear that on the defining issue of his presidency — immigration — he cannot or will not change his hard-line approach heading into 2020.
Yet the Republican president drew a new frame around his Democratic opposition, warning in his second State of the Union address that the rise of socialism on the left threatens the nation’s core values.
Tuesday’s speech was not the opening salvo of the 2020 election. That debate began almost immediately after his 2016 victory. But Trump’s prime-time address offered the clearest roadmap to date about his re-election message and how he plans to address cultural and demographic shifts that have clouded the political battlefield.
The first-term president is betting four more years that his aggressive argument — against socialism and illegal immigration — will ultimately preserve his coalition of white working-class men across the industrial Midwest. The group, perhaps more than any other, fueled his razor-thin victory in 2016.
It’s far from clear, however, whether the approach will do enough to repair his strained relationship with women, who left the GOP in droves last fall in a suburban revolt that gave Democrats the House majority.
Tuesday marked a key moment in the early 2020 debate that highlights the struggle for both major political parties to coalesce behind an effective message as the next presidential election season gets underway.
Trump, in particular, needs to improve his political standing if he hopes to win re-election. He opens the election season as one of the weakest first-term presidents on record.
His approval rating during last month’s government shutdown fell to 34 percent, its lowest mark in more than a year, according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
In sharp contrast to the president’s appeal, Democrats have so far tried to embrace a message of unity and diversity with few direct appeals to the white working-class voters who abandoned Democrats in 2016.
Stacey Abrams, who lost her 2018 bid to become Georgia governor, was the first black woman to deliver the Democratic Party’s formal rebuttal to the president’s speech. Flanked by an audience that featured very few white men, she ticked off a list of Democratic priorities on health care, education and voting rights.
Abrams “spoke truth to power tonight. Our democracy only works when all Americans are heard,” said New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the many Democrats who have already entered the 2020 presidential race.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential prospect, offered a rebuttal of his own. He later drew criticism from his own party for stepping on Abrams’ speech.
Sanders’ status as a self-described democratic socialist may have also bolstered Trump’s argument.
“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump told the nation. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Yet more than anything else, immigration stood at the center of his State of the Union message.
Trump highlighted guests in the House chamber whose family had been killed by immigrants in the country illegally, ignoring young immigrants in the crowd known as “Dreamers” who are fighting for legal status. He made the case that the fate of America’s working class is explicitly linked to the threat, real or imagined, posed by caravans of Latin American immigrants approaching the southern border.
“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump argued.
“Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” he said. “Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime and a depleted social safety net.”
Trump faces intense pressure from his own political base to take a hard line on immigration. Many conservatives were outraged last month when Trump ended the government shutdown without securing funding for a massive border wall.
But even without that pressure, the president’s core message throughout his political rise has centered on his opposition to illegal immigration. That will not change.
Republican operatives quickly latched onto Trump’s reference to socialism, eager to rally behind a message less likely to alienate the more-educated suburban women who turned their backs on the GOP last fall.
Trump’s chief counselor, Kellyanne Conway, said Trump was intentionally defining socialism, which may be misunderstood by some Democratic voters.
“It’s creeping throughout the entire party,” Conway told Fox News Radio’s “Brian Kilmeade Show” on Wednesday. “It will be a theme in 2020. So, this president has to knock it down in early 2019.”
She suggested that the speech more broadly demonstrated his willingness to lead “our entire nation.”
“He so loves this country that I don’t want that to be lost,” Conway said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Peoples has covered presidential politics for The Associated Press since 2011.