State of the Union Address, Between the Lines 

By Senior Campaign Agent Megan Field 

On Tuesday 30th January, Donald Trump proved that he could communicate in a manner other than 280 character tweets, delivering the 3rd longest State of the Union Address in 50 years. The keynote speech to Congress is an opportunity for the President to highlight their achievements to date, convey a political message, and most importantly set out the agenda for the year ahead. Unsurprisingly, Trump spent a great deal of the time discussing the “extraordinary success” of his administration’s first year, with minimal attention to any new policy. This article will aim to decode what was said, and consider the question: does the State of the Union Address continue to hold value in an age of partisan division and soundbite politics?

Commentators highlighted that Trump’s address was 80% what he has done, and 20% what he plans to do; it was rhetoric devoid of constructive proposals. Within this, there were a plethora or hyperbolic claims which demand closer examination. For example, Trump boasted of enacting the “biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history”. In fact, the largest were under Ronald Reagan. Trump’s, by comparison, were only the 8th largest at about 0.9% of GDP. He also claimed to have repealed the individual mandate, which he labelled the “disastrous core” of Obamacare. Consequently, not having health insurance no longer incurs penalties, however many other elements of the law remain intact, and so this claim must be taken with a pinch of salt. 

In line with the ideology of 'America first', Trump spent most of the one hour and twenty minutes discussing domestic policy. Asides from this, the President boldly stated that the “coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100% of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria”. Whilst it is correct that the group has been forced out of most of its previously held territory, this was largely due to a strategy started by the Obama administration; forces had already taken 13,000 square miles of territory by the time Trump had taken office. Admittedly, a Republican initiative which awarded American commanders more authority to order airstrikes and make battlefield decisions has accelerated these efforts, but nonetheless his words should not be taken at face value. 

When President Trump did turn to legislative proposals, he tried to strike a bipartisan tone. Ironic, given the previous weekend had been spent negotiating with Democrats to escape a government shutdown, which had emerged out of bitter partisan division. The two parties had reached a stalemate on legislation concerning “Dreamers” or undocumented migrants who had come to the US as children. This meant that the centrepiece of the State of the Union was immigration policy which Trump claimed represents a “down the middle compromise”. The first so called “pillar” is a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented migrants - although he made little mention of the Dreamers who Democrats tried to protect in budget negotiations. In an inflammatory remark, he merely stated that “Americans can be dreamers too”. Secondly, Trump wants to fully secure the border with the infamous wall, and subsequently close loopholes which he claims have been exploited by criminal groups such as the MS13 gang. Instead of a visa lottery, which offers visas to immigrants from underrepresented countries, he wants to move towards a merit-based system. Finally, to protect the nuclear family he aims to end chain migration. This last pillar in fact vastly overstates the impact of family based migration as there in an annual cap which means it is very difficult for anyone to bring in their whole family. 

Unfortunately, there is one (main) flaw in Trump’s plan, as stated by Congressional correspondent Thomas Kaplan “Democrats do not share this view. They see the President’s immigration plan as a hardline approach that is a non starter”, which conflates immigrants with criminality. On these grounds, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, during the Democratic response to the speech, stated “It would be easy to dismiss the past year as chaos. Partisanship. Politics. But it’s far bigger than that. This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection.”

Of all the proposals Trump put forward, there is perhaps only one which represents a genuinely bipartisan concern, namely, the drive to fight the opioid crises. Otherwise, bipartisan rhetoric seems somewhat laughable given that 14 members of the opposition refused to attend, and of those that did, several remained seated throughout and refused to applaud. Many Democrat women also wore black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement, representing a united front against the misogynistic comments Trump has made in the past. 

So, having failed to espouse any meaningful political agenda, the President also managed to exacerbate divisions with the Democrats, begging the question, is the State of the Union Address still a valuable political tool? If there is one thing to be said in it’s favour, surely it is that a President typically accustomed to speaking in soundbites managed to endure a speech of such length without any notable gaffs. Asides from this, the event, which was once heralded as the most important speech of the calendar, has minimal impact. Given the current turbulence of the US political system (as I write, yet another shutdown is being averted), such pomp and circumstance merely serves to highlight the fragility of the regime. Deviations from conventionality could make this marginally more interesting, but if a President as unorthodox as Donald Trump was forced to adhere, there is little hope for the future. As deplored by a White House speechwriter, “year after year, everyone says ‘it’s going to be different’, and then they go out and they give a State of the Union address that’s utterly conventional”. It is a shopping list of policy at best, a political farce at worst. 

Sources and Further Reading:

Image: Gage Skidmore @Flickr

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