It must be said that President Trump does best when he has a formal speech that he can read. The speech writers let him speak in short phrases that allowed him to make a point, pause, and get persistent applause led by his Republican legislators.
Following most state of the union speeches, he ended with a rather eloquent appeal for unity within patriotic appeals to “choose greatness.”
His themes were uniformly conservative; no surprise there. The strength of the economy provided the president with the opportunity to take credit for the growth of the economy, though he doesn’t mention that this has been a steady growth for over 100 months.
The longest segment was, not surprisingly, on what he calls the crisis on our southern border. Immigrants trying to come to America and claim asylum he characterizes as sources of evil. Fear mongering was the basic theme here. Only the wall could save America. This augers for more crisis to come in the middle of the month.
Another theme he stressed was the well being of segments of the population, especially minorities, who he claimed are employed at a higher rate than ever before in America. Women were pointed out especially as increasing in the work force.
This brought sustained cheers from the large group of Democratic women legislators recently elected to the House. You could tell them since most were dressed in white. Even Trump got a kick out of their cheers as they pointed to each other.
Security issues are to be solved by yet another $700 billion military spending. That would be $1.4 trillion over two years. That on top of the huge tax breaks for the rich will leave serious pressures on the American debt and make it difficult, if not impossible, to spend sufficiently on infrastructure that the president placed as a high priority.
Health care seems a priority with ending the HIV epidemic, lowering drug and hospital costs, and attacking childhood cancer highlighted in the speech.
The most jarring part of the speech came when he said that “an economic miracle is taking place … and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or partisan investigations.” A strange thing to add to the state of the union. It refers more to the state of Trump’s vulnerabilities to those investigations than to the union.
To fully evaluate the speech you’ll have to see the “fact checkers” to find all the misrepresentations in the speech.
Absent themes were those on gun control, education and climate change. No mention of these.
One of the more recent characteristics of these speeches has been to introduce “guests” who the president wants to use to symbolize his policy and personal concerns as well to give “feel good” moments to the occasion.
Some of this is pandering, others are truly celebratory (veterans of WWII, the holocaust, and first responders).
Congress members also invited symbolic people to the speech, though they don’t get to introduce them to the body and TV audience.
The president, as most do, focused on unity of the country and with political antagonists. He hoped his policies could be sold as cooperative measures that could be successful with Democrats in congress.
The dangerous policies of the Trump administration regarding weakening NATO, dropping the missile treaty and launching a cold-war type missile and atomic competition, and the confusing policies towards the Middle East are another scary part of the speech.
The new Democrat majority in the House is in the process of passing a variety of problem solving legislation, challenging the Republican Senate and President to join them. The unity policy of the president will be challenged fairly swiftly by these proposals.
Competing interests and goals will clash fairly quickly in the year leading up to the 2020 elections. Will Democrats show some flexibility? Will the president show some negotiating skills to find some common ground? Will Senate Republicans let legislation get to the floor for a vote? Stay tuned.
Richard Fulton is an emeritus professor of political science.