Buenos Aires Times

In State of the Union speech Trump offers more attitude than content

In his annual address to both houses of Congress the US president covered all the expected topics, from patriotism to immigration to bipartisanship, but not much more.

Wednesday 31 January, 2018
United States President Donald Trump holds up copies of his speech before the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday night.
United States President Donald Trump holds up copies of his speech before the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday night. Foto:AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

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If you didn’t watch US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address last night, don’t worry. It was long, boring, sparse on news and, for the most part, predictable. I slogged through 5,830 words over 80 minutes and dozens of post-speech reactions so you don’t have to.

Most of Trump’s address was predictable. Before last night, much of the conversation was about how ‘presidential’ he would act, a regular topic of debate constantly swirling around the famously unpolished and sometimes even volatile world leader.

As he’s done on a handful of important occasions since he became a politician, Trump was indeed ‘presidential’ last night. He ad-libbed a bit with his beloved superlatives and faux-confidential asides, but generally spoke in a calm, clear, almost dull tone. As a proven performer, his timing was impeccable – but emotion was more or less non-existent.

In terms of content, little was new. After lavishing praise on the nation’s reaction to tragedies such as Hurricane Harvey and the Las Vegas shooting in October, Trump spent a large initial section of his address touting the victories of his administration in its first year, a list that can be invigorating, depressing, thin or overflowing – depending on your partisan bend.

He mentioned job growth, the stock market, the African-American unemployment, tax cuts, repealing part of ‘Obamacare’ (otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act), eliminating federal regulations and more. You get the idea. If you’re curious as to the rest, you can always read the entire annotated speech or watch it online.

Many of these accomplishments took a beating from fact-checkers. For example, half of the new jobs he claimed credit for were created under former president Barack Obama; December’s tax reform bill is not the biggest history but the fourth-largest; and the current visa lottery system does not award visas “randomly” but has specific education and work experience requirements.

From there Trump moved on to his vision for the next year and the rest of his term. He wants a US$1.5-trillion infrastructure bill (although much of that amount would theoretically come from local and state governments and private investment, as the outline of the bill stands now). He also wants to continue lowering the unemployment rate, though unsurprisingly he did not offer concrete policy proposals on this.

Then Trump arrived at immigration. It’s been the hottest topic on Capitol Hill and has dominated political headlines for the past few weeks. It’s what caused the government to shut down for three days in in mid-January. Both parties and the White House can’t decide exactly how resolve problems they see with ‘Dreamers’ (undocumented immigrants who entered the country at a young age and were given temporary legal status by the Obama administration); the wall along the US-Mexico border; deportations of undocumented immigrants, the current visa lottery system; and “chain migration” (the concept of using legal status or citizenship to bring family members into the country – Republicans say current rules are being manipulated to bring in distant relatives).

“Americans are dreamers, too,” was perhaps the night’s most memorable line. It was symbolic of the right’s rhetoric that prioritises the safety and prosperity of US citizens over undocumented immigrants. Trump also spent a proportionally massive amount of time talking about the gang MS-13 and subtly insinuating members of the gang who have committed violent crimes aren’t so different from any other undocumented immigrant.

Other notable narratives:

On presidential guests: More than previous presidents, Trump embraced the decades-old strategy of calling on “stutniks” (named after Lenny Stutnik, the first person who participated in this role), guests the president invites to sit in the first lady’s private box and references throughout his speech, usually as a “real person” example of a policy success or challenge the country is dealing with. Trump had a lot of them.

On speechwriting: I freely admit my bias, but Trump’s speech just didn’t seem to have the gravitas of any of Obama’s State of the Union addresses. The former president was renowned for being an excellent public speaker. Trump is famous for being brash and brazen and going off-script. It showed. Lines like, “He goes by DJ and CJ. He said call me either one. So we'll call you CJ,” would never have made it into an Obama speech. The reaction of the chamber seemed to indicate this as well: Republicans, true to their role, clapped loudly and often, but came across and less enthusiastic, sometimes almost confused, after certain lines.

On the opposition response: Traditionally, the party that does not hold the White House selects a Congressperson to deliver a response. This year there were five. Critics said that shows just how scattered and unorganised the Democratic Party is right now, while defenders said it was simply representative of wanting to appeal to as many different audiences as possible. Massachusetts Senator Joe Kennedy gave the official party response, which unlike previous years was in front of a live audience. It was broadly aspirational and poetic, but extremely light on policy specifics, and focused the most on drawing a contrast with Trump’s divisive language on immigration.

A few smaller notes:

  • Trump did announce one entirely new policy, an executive order that will keep the Guantánamo Bay detention centre open, seemingly closing the door on a political saga that carried over from the Obama years.
  • First lady Melania Trump wore a white pantsuit to the event, in contrast with many Democratic woman who wore all black as party of Time’s Up movement. It’s also similar to the outfit in which Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination. 
  • Trump did express on several occasions throughout the 80 minutes a desire for greater bipartisan cooperation, but it wasn’t enough for many people. The Washington Post received a mountain of social media criticism for the first edition of the next day’s front cover, which read “A call for bipartisanship.”
  • The second-largest topic in US politics right now, the ongoing Russia investigation, was conspicuously absent all night.

All of this will happen next January. In the meantime Trump and Congress will return to work as another budget deadline nears in early February without an immigration compromise in sight.


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