It was a warm Tuesday night last week when President Trump left the White House for the Chamber of the House of Representatives. The usual four members of the Supreme Court were in attendance and seated stoically, including Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, and both of the President’s two recent appointees: Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. The President’s cabinet had just been announced and taken their seat when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gesticulated to the House Sergeant at Arms that she was ready to welcome the President to the stage.
The President shook hands with legislators lining the left and right sides of the aisle as he made his way toward the rostrum, wearing his solid red tie, his Vice President wearing a solid blue tie behind and to the President’s right. President Trump’s address was shaping up to be very similar to his last. Rumors had been circulating Capitol Hill regarding the content of the address, with many pundits predicting a similarly partisan and rousing appeal to the President’s base.
The last State of the Union President Trump gave was organized and concise. He made broad appeals to Congress for a greater legislative push towards border security, touted his party’s controversial tax plan and mentioned America’s increasing nuclear arsenal as a response to North Korean aggression. This address, however, was vitally dissimilar. The content of President Trump’s address was largely bipartisan and aimed to build legislative coalitions, but the actual organization of the speech itself was rather chaotic and lacked the distinct policy sections that were common in previous addresses by other Presidents. With many viewers left rather confused after the address, below is a broken down policy by policy summation of the address.
President Trump was wise to speak about his greatest achievement first to set a positive tone for what came later. The President began his first mention of “the hottest economy in the world,” with a seemingly unrealistic appeal to grab minority voters in the upcoming election in 2020. He mentioned that unemployment rates for minorities and women had never been lower. The President continued, briefly touching on the removal of the estate tax for ranchers, farmers, and rural landowners who suffer most from estate and capital gains taxes. Later in his address, President Trump mentioned that 58% of the jobs created since his inauguration have been filled by women, a statistic that was met with great enthusiasm by the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, who were all seated on the left side of the aisle and all dressed in white (notably including Speaker Pelosi). The President seemed delighted with the enthusiasm, and continued, highlighting the dramatic increase in female legislators since the 2018 midterm election, which was also met with similar enthusiasm.
The President’s comments on healthcare were perhaps the most scattered of any policy subject he touched. He mentioned his removal of ObamaCare’s individual mandate that required all citizens to pay for healthcare (with the exception of those qualifying for Medicaid). He vaguely alluded to an opioid crisis management bill signed into law this year, but with little elaboration. President Trump’s last comment on healthcare was about recent discussions about legalizing late-term abortion practices in New York and Virginia. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law the Reproductive Health Act, allowing women to abort a fetus after the 24-week mark if the fetus was no longer viable or the health and safety of the mother was in danger. President Trump took a defiant stand against this act at the latter end of his speech, possibly to appeal to his base one last time before the occasion was over.
One of President Trump’s most discussed topics during his address was foreign policy. He covered a whole range of policy decisions, including outright stating that he would be adopting a “realist” approach to international relations. The realist approach to foreign policy typically emphasizes the use of military force instead of using diplomatic channels to resolve issues, a strange contradiction to his recent withdrawal of troops from Syria. President Trump then discussed attempting to renegotiate nuclear arms treaties with Russia and China, citing Russia’s lack of compliance in recent years and American inaction from previous administrations.
The President also dedicated a few lines to directly address disagreements with China. He declared that China is stealing American “ideas, money and jobs,” possibly in an effort to justify his brief trade war with China in 2018. The President also announced touted his dismantlement of the North American Free Trade Agreement known as NAFTA and praised its replacement, the Mexico-Canada-United States agreement known as the MCA, which he negotiated this past fall. President Trump then proceeded to recommend that Congress approve his proposed retaliatory tariff bill, which automatically places tariffs on foreign imports if a foreign nation has placed a tariff on the American export.
Immigration was President Trump’s most important policy point going into the speech. In the wake of the government shutdown and with another looming ahead in coming weeks, special attention was paid to what he was going to say about the border wall negotiations. His previous stance on the border wall was a stubborn one. He insisted that the government would remain shut down until a spending bill was passed that supplied his desired $5 billion. Eventually, the President gave in and the government was reopened and a bipartisan committee to solve the border wall was created. Things seemed to be a bit more optimistic, though some speculated that another shutdown would occur once the short-term spending bill expired. The President’s specific comments regarding immigration were more of the same. President Trump painted illegal immigrants as mostly criminals and harmful to our nation, citing the numerous MS13 cells that have arisen around the nation and the murders that have been associated with them. Echoing his 2018 Midterm mantra, he mentioned several more caravans heading towards the border, a claim which has yet to be confirmed.
State of the Union addresses are notorious for being forgettable speeches that won’t be remembered in a few weeks’ time. It’s often a stage the President uses to rile up support and propose vague agendas, but no President has been better at not following through than President Trump. Whether it’s a new infrastructure package, the wall, fixing the opioid crisis or giving Flint clean water, President Trump just has not been able to follow through on his promises. The State of the Union may have been an exciting moment for conservatives, but just based on his track record, the likelihood that any of his promises are fulfilled remains somewhat pessimistic to a neutral spectator.
Responses to State of the Union addresses are notoriously filled with gaffs and errors that become wildly popular to criticize on social media. Whether it was Senator Marco Rubio’s dry mouth or Congressman Joe Kennedy III lip situation, something always seems to go awry in the response. Surely, it was a simple goal for the Democrats this time around to just have a normal response, but expectations fell far short of the spectacular result. After narrowly losing a gubernatorial race in Georgia, Stacey Abrams was given the nod by Democrats to perform the response to President Trump. Against a backdrop of a diverse group of Americans and wearing a fire-engine red pants suit, Stacey Abrams proved to the country why she deserves to remain the national spotlight. Her message to the nation was a breath of fresh air from the usual “Trump is bad” mantra the Democrats have been pushing for the last two years.
Abrams began her speech with a tale often told by her Republican counterparts: a tale of a politician growing up with working-class parents just trying to live the American dream. Instead of the usual “my parents got out of poverty through economic opportunity,” mantra often used by Republicans, Abrams emphasized that she was able to be successful because of the people around her who believed in the bare-bones facets of American morality. She then criticized the President for abandoning the very values that allowed her, and many other Americans, to succeed. Abrams then carefully transitioned into criticizing the less-talked-about aspects of America’s recent economic success: wage stagnation. The federal minimum wage has not been increased in nearly ten years, and Abrams asserted that Americans are falling behind because of it. In a quick switch, she then targeted previous news stories regarding the treatment of illegal immigrants at the border. Citing the conservative hero and President, Ronald Reagan, she quoted him by asserting that “a compassionate border is not an open border,” which is perhaps contrary to the image Republicans have been seeking to paint of the Democratic immigration agenda. Abrams finished her speech by briefly condemning racism, climate change inaction, and listing a few lies that the President has told. In a speech that was overall lively, energetic, and reasonable, she stood in stark contrast to the occasion that preceded her.
While the Democratic response was sure to temporarily excite Democrats, it’s the State of the Union addresses that leave the lasting impact on directing the President’s party to enact his desired policies. Recently, the Senate and House passed a bipartisan spending bill to keep the government open until the current bill expires, perhaps in response to the President’s focus on the immigration problem in his address. This spending bill included $1.7 million in funding for Trump’s border wall and a few more dispersed funds for smaller border improvements. While Stacey Abram’s speech may get lost in the annals of political history, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of her.