The annual State of the Union (SOTU) speech provides US presidents with an opportunity to set the tone of US politics. Although it is a formal speech to the Congress, historically, its target audience has been the likely 40million Americans who watch it on television – many of whom do not regularly follow day-to-day politics.
This year’s SOTU was always going to be interesting not only because it was Trump’s first but because at this stage of his presidency no previous president was so unpopular, was so much at loggerheads with key elements in his administration, or faced so much legal peril. At around 38% approval, Trump is the most unpopular president since polls began. Just before his speech, Trump had castigated his own Justice Department (including Attorney General Jeff Sessions), as well as the FBI (including deputy director Andrew McCabe) for hindering his attempts to coerce those involved in investigating him. Numerous press reports have also indicated that those investigations have reached a critical phase with Trump soon to be interviewed by special prosecutor Mueller in regard to Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s possible abuse of power. Various congressional committee investigations are also under way on similar and related subjects.
Against this background, we did not know beforehand whether he would again discard countless norms and deliver a divisive “from the heart” speech similar to the one he gave at his Inaugural a year ago, when he talked of “American carnage”. Or, as suggested by White House pre-speech briefings, the president would rise to the occasion, transcend his personal grievances and prejudices, summon uncharacteristic restraint, and read from the teleprompter a presidentialist speech written by the White House grown-ups on American values and patriotism while touching on his “achievements”.
Turns out that the pre-speech briefings were pretty accurate. As in his Davos speech last week and last year’s speech to the Congress, Trump opted for the more presidential route, sought to improve public perceptions of him and his presidency while following the paths taken by previous presidents of being unapologetically partisan – setting out his party’s legislative programme, boasting of his own achievements, while berating his Democratic opponents.
So, in a lengthy 80-minute speech uncharacteristically faithful to the words on the teleprompter and evoking the mythical language of “the American dream”, Trump challenged opposition Democrats to work with him and congressional Republicans in the spirit of “down-the-middle compromise” to overhaul US immigration policies and rebuild the US’s deteriorating infrastructure while in the same speech claiming “extraordinary success” for his administration’s first year.
While Trump repeated his sympathy for the Dreamers (youngsters brought illegally to the US as children), reiterating his support for granting them legal status in exchange for stronger border security (including the building of a wall on the southern border with Mexico), and avoided mentioned his administration’s efforts to prohibit sanctuary cities or rescind international trade agreements, he could not resist some of the divisive nativist rhetoric and personal attacks of his inaugural speech and numerous vitriolic Twitter messages. Egregiously, he again sought to link existing immigration policies to the incidence of crime and terrorism highlighting the parents of young girls killed by immigrants who entered the country as “illegal, unaccompanied alien minors,” and concluding that it was time for Congress to “finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country.”
Apart from a $1.5trillion infrastructure plan with little detail, notably about who would pay for it, and a promise that he would direct US foreign aid “only … to America’s friends”, Trump articulated no new policies in his speech. Instead, he emphasised his administration’s greatest accomplishments (including the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the continued operation of the Guantánamo Bay military prison, and his highly controversial imposition of restrictions on the number of family members immigrants may bring to the US) as well as a ridiculously ambitious legislative agenda that the Congress facing midterm elections in November will find impossible to enact.
So, overall, Trump’s was a pretty standard presidential speech that offered little that was surprising. In the absence of any overarching governing theory emanating from the White House, it offered little new evidence of Trump’s ability — or even the interest — in turning well-delivered words into tangible results without self-sabotaging or undermining his and his staff’s best intentions. Notwithstanding their proclivity to cling to the slightest suggestion of normality despite Trump frequently changing his policy positions, frequently making offensive attacks on Twitter that undermine his calls for unity and bipartisan cooperation, congressional Republicans will surely remain worried about their impetuous leader and their prospects in the forthcoming elections.
Moreover, the perilous position of his presidency and political scars from the last year will remain, probably reinforced by further vitriolic Twitter messages in the coming days and years. Think: Trump on the peaceful protest of Colin Kaepernick and other National Football League players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Think: Trump on Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) over her criticism of the president’s botched condolence call to the widow of Sergeant David Johnson killed in Niger. Think: Trump’s disparaging comments about the people of various developing countries. And think Trump’s disgraceful reaction to the white-supremacist hate unleashed at Charlottesville last August, claiming that “both sides” were to blame. A US president needs to assert moral authority. On this count, as on America’s growing economic inequality, Trump’s SOTU fails.