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Trump talks unity, sows division in State of the Union

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Trump talks unity, sows division in State of the Union

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Win McNamee Pool via Reuters
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News analysis

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's first State of the Union address was billed by the White House beforehand as a speech that would be "unifying" and "bipartisan."

It was neither.

A relatively sedate Trump poked seated and silent Democrats in the House chamber — and their constituents — with partisan jabs on Obamacare, immigration, gun rights, respect for the American flag and other issues that have generated fierce friction since he took office.

"After a long and divisive year, many Americans were yearning for the president to present a unifying vision for the country," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said afterward. "Unfortunately, his address tonight stoked the fires of division instead of bringing us closer together."

It was almost all red meat for Trump's base — half victory lap, half partisan broadside — with very little for Democrats to chew on.

"Well, minus a shot of #Amnesty let me sincerely say, well done Mr. President," Jason Johnson, the chief strategist for Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign, said on Twitter. "Amnesty" refers to immigration hard-liners' belief that people who were brought to the country illegally as children should not be afforded the path to American citizenship that Trump has proposed.

Related: Democrats scoff, boo, groan, glower at Trump's State of the Union

Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that Trump extended a thin olive branch: He's a president with a narrow band between the ceiling and floor of his approval ratings, and he is almost religious about not alienating his base.

But before the speech, a senior administration official told reporters that it would be "unifying" and "the tone will be one of bipartisanship." And it started out that way.

"When he said he wants to extend his hand, I thought the back of his hand quite frankly."

"Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve," Trump said.

The president took credit for the growth of the economy, low unemployment, tax cuts and the blows struck against ISIS — accomplishments dear to Republicans in the House chamber and across the country, and ones that Democrats would have a hard time taking issue with.

But the tone turned more aggressive as Trump detailed his efforts to dismantle the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

"We repealed the core of disastrous Obamacare — the individual mandate is now gone," the president said at one point.

"The era of economic surrender is totally over," he said at another.

Save for his vow to keep open the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Trump's address was devoid of new proposals.

It was "very backward looking," with an "incredible focus on fear, crime, terrorism and foreigners," Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told NBC News.

Trump's remarks on immigration, where he has been trying to strike a deal with Democrats, may have made his goal even harder to reach. His political adversaries booed when he got to the most controversial piece of his plan, which would sharply limit the ability of legal residents to sponsor family members.

Related: How Trump's State of the Union claims stand up to the facts

"The fourth and final pillar protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration," Trump said. "Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading advocate for immigrants' rights, later walked out of the chamber.

"When he said he wants to extend his hand, I thought the back of his hand quite frankly," said Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y. "I felt it was very divisive. ... I didn't get the sense or the feel that he was actually reaching across the aisle and bringing us together tonight."

Image: Trump delivers his first State of the Union address in Washington
President Donald Trump projects confidence with a motion from the podium during his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. Win McNamee Pool via Reuters

Regardless of the lip-service Trump would pay to unity, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said before the speech that the president's actions have exposed, deepened or created fault lines dividing Americans.

"The fundamental state of who we are as a nation is upended, unsettled," Steele said, pointing to race and class as two areas where Trump has exacerbated tensions. "Those things are real and they've played out every day."

Mary Kate Cary, who was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, said Trump cornered Democrats with his "call upfront for Democrats to join him on common ground. ... Pelosi looked like she was about to barf."