Region's political leaders split over Trump's second State of the Union

NWI Times

MUNSTER — Political leaders in the Region were predictably divided after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Republicans loved the speech, while Democrats panned it.

Chris Salatas, the Republican president of the Lowell Town Council, was firmly in the former camp. Salatas had planned to host a viewing party for fellow Republicans at his home, but was forced to cancel it because of the winter storm rolling through the area.

Although the party was on ice, the lack of festivities didn’t dampen Salatas’ enthusiasm for the president’s speech. He was particularly impressed with Trump’s overview of the strong economy over the past two years.

“He has a lot of accomplishments to talk about [in terms of] the economy,” Salatas said. “It’s doing exceedingly well.”

Salatas added that he was disappointed to see Democratic lawmakers withhold applause as Trump highlighted U.S. economic achievements, even as they cheered for other agenda items Trump mentioned.

“It’s the thing Americans care most about,” he said.

Trump’s delivery of his second State of the Union address was a far cry from his usual Twitter persona, which relishes provoking Democratic opponents with insults and unflattering nicknames.

On Tuesday night, though, Trump was much more subdued, calling for cooperation on a range of issues including infrastructure spending, criminal justice reform and lowering health care costs. Coming off a brutal shutdown fight with the new House Democratic majority, Trump led off his speech with an appeal to bipartisan unity.

“[Our agenda] is not a Republican agenda, it’s not a Democratic agenda, it’s the agenda of the American people,” Trump said, calling on lawmakers to “embrace the boundless potential of cooperation … and the common good.”

Even so, Trump didn’t shy away from his customary rhetoric on border security, the centerpiece of his policy agenda. He reiterated his demands for changes to immigration laws and for border wall funding to address the “urgent national security crisis” of illegal immigration.

“No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration,” Trump said. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards.”  

Republican Party leaders in the Region appreciated Trump’s commitment to keeping border security and immigration at the top of his policy wish list. Ahead of the speech, Hobart Republican Party Chairman Jim Graznow worried Trump would waver on his demands for a barrier along the southern border and funding for more immigration judges.

“I was glad he set it in stone,” Graznow said, referring to Trump’s border security agenda. “I was afraid he was going to be vague and leave the door open. I liked the idea that he was sure on ICE, saying he wasn’t going to reduce the number of agents.”

While Democratic lawmakers mostly sat stone-faced as Trump talked about the economy and immigration, there were moments of bipartisan applause. Many Democratic lawmakers cheered when Trump highlighted his recent foreign policy moves, including his recognition of the opposition government in Venezuela. They also appeared to back his call for withdrawing U.S. troops from conflicts across the greater Middle East.

“As a candidate for President, I pledged a new approach,” he said, referring to his promises to extricate the U.S. from long-standing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

“After decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” Trump added.

Foreign policy wasn't the only area where Trump laid out policy proposals that his Democratic opponents could support. One prominent moment of bipartisan agreement came when Trump pushed for a national family leave policy, long a Democratic priority.

Salatas believes such a policy has potential for support among Republicans and Democrats alike.

"I didn't expect that at all," Salatas said. "But it is something that both sides can find some degree of unity on."

Democrats react

Trump's appeals to both Democrats and Republicans were recognized by Democratic officials, who saw issues that both sides of the aisle can work together on in agreement. However, whether his bi-partisan tone was sincere or not will show in his future actions, Democrats said.

Congressman Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said he is concerned about continued government shutdowns.

“We simply cannot use the threat of turning off essential public services that keep our nation safe and our economy strong as a policy negotiation tactic,” Visclosky said in a news release.

As legislation continues, Visclosky said he will continue to ensure that fiscal year appropriations bills will be completed in a timely manner.

“...And that we remain focused on supporting the men and women of our armed forces, creating more opportunities for good-paying jobs, and alleviating the budget and rising cost concerns of individuals and families in Northwest Indiana and across our nation,” Visclosky said in a news release.

David Hamm, D-Hammond, said he agreed with Trump's medical and sentencing reform talking points. However, he felt Trump's quip about “stopping investigations” did not belong in the State of the Union address.

“I thought that was a terrible venue to bring that up,” Hamm said.

Charlie Brown, D-Gary, Brown agreed there was something off about Trump's mention.

“When he said there cannot be legislation as long as there's an investigation, I don't know if it was a hidden threat or a way of intimidating congress in some way,” Brown said.

Brown said he felt the president did better in his speech delivery than he has done previously, however felt that Trump was exaggerating employment statistics when speaking on the workforce. Brown also said he felt Trump spent too much time talking about the southern border wall and making examples out of audience guests, rather than discussing “how to move the nation forward.”

Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, was glad to hear bi-partisan issues calling for both sides of the table to work together.

“The main thing I'm glad to hear is the will to work together,” Bilski said. “It sounds like the president is not going to take a hard line with the wall. ...Also when it comes to healthcare, the issues of pre-existing conditions and the cost of prescription drugs is something we can work together on both sides.”

However, some things were left with loose ends, Bilski said, such as the vague mentioning of space exploration and the general call for infrastructure improvements with no specific targets or goals mentioned.

“I think he was sincere,” Bilski said. “I've heard him speak before and agree with things. Whether it comes to fruition, we don't know. I'm counting on it and hoping for it.”