Watching Trump’s Speech: They Cheered. They Groaned. They Ate a Cake.
Posted January 31, 2018 9:34 a.m. EST
Gone are the days when hearing directly from the president was a rare event. Now President Donald Trump is a regular, unfiltered presence on Twitter, often before Americans have had their first cup of coffee.
Still, his first State of the Union address Tuesday prompted some of the traditional rituals: the viewing parties, the instant analyses, the debates over what the president should or should not have said. (Plenty of Democrats followed a newer tradition they deemed #SOTUBoycott and turned on Netflix instead.)
Our national correspondents watched the speech to gauge the mood in competitive congressional districts in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois and Texas, where Republicans are waiting to see if a wave of Democratic enthusiasm could be enough to cost them seats in 2018.
Looking Away, Watching Tomorrow
PALATINE, Ill. — Bob Schmidt, 36, glanced up from his beer just in time to see Trump pause from his State of the Union address and heartily applaud for himself.
“Ugh,” Schmidt said, turning away from the flat-screen televisions hanging over the bar. “I voted for him and he’s the joke of the country. I don’t know how, but I’m happy with him and I’m embarrassed by him at the same time.”
At T.J. O’Brien’s Bar & Grill in this northwest suburb of Chicago, a mix of Democrats and Republicans lined the bar, downing after-work drinks just steps from the commuter train station.
They were far from united in their political beliefs. But they agreed on one thing: They didn’t care to pay attention to the speech.
One woman eyed the television, promptly grabbed a remote control from behind the bar and cranked up “Redneck Woman” on the jukebox. A man grumbled about the “deep state” and booed when the camera lingered on Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California or Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, both Democrats, but otherwise talked throughout the address.
In this pocket of Republican-leaning suburbia, Illinois’s 6th Congressional District, Rep. Peter Roskam, the Republican, is seen as vulnerable to Democratic challengers in his re-election bid. One year into Trump’s presidency, the political landscape here feels especially unsettled.
George Ramirez, 44, a senior analyst at a pharmaceutical company, said he identified as an independent and didn’t vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016.
As Trump talked about immigration and terrorism, Ramirez said he hoped the president would focus on the big issues and try to unite the country.
Ramirez said he would wait until the next day to actually watch the speech, though. “I have no desire to watch it right now,” Ramirez said. “I’m recording it.”
As Trump referenced young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children, Schmidt sighed. “They’re kids,” he said. “Of course they should be allowed to stay.”
Schmidt turned his back to the television screen.
“At 5:30 a.m. tomorrow, I’ll be back on the train going to work,” he said. “I’ll watch it then.”
A Speech Transformed to Sport
ATLANTA — They cheered for the hero police officer and the hero soldier, for the North Korean dissident and for Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense.
But the loudest responses from the Republicans who gathered at a neighborhood grill here to watch the State of the Union speech came when the cameras cut away to glowering Democratic lawmakers in attendance. They hooted at each scene. “The faces!” someone yelled at one particularly glum tableau.
It gave the entire scene here in Brookhaven — a northern Atlanta neighborhood in Georgia’s competitive 6th Congressional District — the mood of a televised basketball rout, with Washington's long-faced Democrats in the role of hated rivals sitting on the losing bench. At one point, the cameras showed African-American lawmakers sitting silently as Trump spoke of low unemployment numbers for black people. A white man here, who appeared to be in his 30s, stood up with arms raised, as if a referee had blown a call.
“That says it all,” he yelled, “if you’re not even going to clap for that!”
The watch party here was sponsored by the Atlanta Young Republicans and the Republican National Committee in a district where Karen Handel, a Republican member of Congress, fended off Jon Ossoff last year in a race that drew intense national attention.
Averi Washington, a 42-year-old African-American real estate agent, was one of the few non-Trump supporters in the crowd of roughly 60. Washington said he had come to the watch party with a friend. In 2016, he said, he did not like either candidate, and did not vote.
But he said he liked the way the economy was going under Trump. The real estate market is strong in Atlanta, and Washington said he was open to believing that Trump was taking the country in the right direction — despite all of his feuding on Twitter.
After the speech, Washington said he appreciated Trump’s rhetorical focus on results, from low unemployment numbers to tax reform. “I mean, those are impressive, because that’s how you strengthen the middle class,” he said.
Before the speech, Chelsea Magee, 32, a Trump supporter who works for a wealth management company, said she wanted the president to use the opportunity to show that he could rein in his antics. They were getting in the way of the good economic and policy news he should be getting credit for, she said.
In the end, Magee gave Trump high marks for restraint. “He was very stoic, very mature,” she said. “He threw out the meat that he needed to, but he wasn’t excessive about it. He was perfect.”
Cause for Bingo, Applause and Cake
HOUSTON — Even the cake was pro-Trump.
A chocolate crumb cake with red, white and blue sprinkles was given a place of honor at Beaver’s restaurant here. It sat on a table in a private dining room underneath a set of lights, a dig at a top Democrat that encapsulated the vibe at this Republican-heavy watch party.
The cake was in honor of Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, who had referred to the bonuses that some companies gave workers following the passage of the Republican tax plan as “crumbs.”
No one touched the cake while the president appeared on several flat-screen TVs. People cheered, applauded and rose occasionally from their seats for ovations. They hung on the president’s every word, quite literally, since they were playing “State of the Union bingo,” marking words like “DACA,” “Melania,” “wall” and “infrastructure.”
Jeb Bashaw, the host of the party and the chief executive of an investment management and financial planning company, liked what he heard from Trump on Tuesday, calling the speech inspirational and patriotic.
“He’s talking about opportunity for everyone, not just certain classes of people,” said Bashaw, 55.
Bashaw and his friends watched the speech in a place that Democrats view as a battleground — the district of Rep. John Culberson, which has been comfortably held by Republicans since the late 1960s. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly won this congressional district, and a crowded field of Democrats has lined up to try to flip the seat in November.
For those at this private party, there seemed no risk of flipped votes. Trump’s speech reinvigorated them.
Moments after Trump had finished, Bashaw called out: “Who wants cake?”
For One Voter, Rising Hopes
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Lisa Carnahan didn’t vote for Trump, but there she was on Tuesday night, in a pink sweater and rhinestone jeans, clapping mightily with the rest of the crowd at a Republican watch party in Colorado’s 6th District. A Republican, Mike Coffman, holds the congressional seat there, but the district has long been a tossup and Coffman faces challengers.
On the wall, a flag featured the president on a war tank, wielding a golden machine gun. An American flag and a flurry of dollar bills billowed behind him. And Carnahan, a Republican who refused to vote for Trump, said she was pleasantly surprised. He seemed so presidential, she said.
“I always expect crazy talk from him,” she said. “I guess you feel a little more hopeful listening to this.” Carnahan, 39, is a full-time Lyft driver. She said she had been wary of Trump, considering him too erratic.
Her assessment of his job during the last year, though, seemed to be shifting. “I mostly approve,” she said at the watch party. The president had passed tax reform, as he had promised. And he had cut back on regulation, as he had promised.
Then there was Tuesday’s speech.
“He seemed very sincere,” she said. “Very positive. Very good at telling the stories of the people he wanted to present. Fluid speech! Sometimes he can seem really negative.”
Carnahan said she was considering voting for Trump next time. “If he continues to sound like that, I would be more of a fan,” she said. “I might have to join Twitter as of tonight, so I can follow him to see what he says — because maybe it will change from this night forward. I hope.”