‘The state of our union is strong because our people are strong’
This was the message the US President, Donald Trump, delivered to Congress tonight as he made his first State of the Union speech. The State of the Union speech is an annual address made by sitting presidents as per article 2 of the US constitution.
After 12 months of controversy, the world was waiting to see whether we would get Donald Trump the President or Donald Trump the twitter warrior. It will be up to the American people over the next days and weeks to decide what they believe they saw.
Trump began his speech talking about the tragedies that have befallen America over the past year. Speaking of the devastation left by hurricane Maria to the US island territory of Puerto Rico, the President said: ‘we will always pull through together.’ This message of national unity seems confusing knowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced an end to their support in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, despite 20% of the island still lacking running water.
In a rebuke to Congress, Trump spoke on the role of elected officials and how it was their job ‘to seek out common ground’ and how American citizens ‘are the people we were elected to serve’.
In terms of his own achievements, the President was visibly proud of his tax plan, enacted in the latter part of last year. Trump spoke about the investment seen since the tax cuts and how ‘roughly three million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses’. Speaking of job creation, he proclaimed how ‘African American unemployment [is] at [the] lowest rate ever recorded’. Whilst this claim is accurate, the unemployment rate has been going down consistently since former president Obama’s time in office. African American unemployment levels are still twice as high as white unemployment.
With a thinly veiled reference to the campaign by NFL players to kneel during the anthem in protest at the racial inequalities in the country, the President stated that all citizens ‘share the same great American flag’.
You can read original reporting from Brig on the protests in the NFL here.
In what is thought to be an attack on the secular progressive left, Trump assured onlookers that ‘we know that faith and family is the centre of American life’. He spoke of his administrations ‘historic actions to protect religious liberty’.
A moment from the speech, sure to anger green campaigners was when the President lauded how America has ‘ended the war on beautiful clean coal’.
Policy statements more likely to attract bi-partisan support included: governmental support for paid family leave, prison reform to allow released convicts to ‘get a second chance at life’, and a drop in the price of prescription drugs.
One of the most controversial points of the night was when Trump spoke of his four-pillared plan for comprehensive immigration reform. He began this section by informing those assembled that, ‘open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities… they have caused the loss of innocent lives’.
Before speaking of the role of dreamers, immigrants brought to the US illegally by their parents at a young age, in his plan Trump made sure we were all aware that ‘Americans are dreamers too’. He described his plan as ‘a compromise where no one gets everything they want’. The President, of course, promoted his border wall plans and spoke of the ending of ‘chain migration’, where people are allowed to immigrate because they have relatives who have already settled in the US. It was when speaking of chain migration that Trump received boos from assembled Democrats. Finishing his words on immigration he announced he would be willing to ‘sign a bill that puts America first’ and urged Congress to ‘come together and set politics aside’.
On foreign policy, the President spoke about ‘strong enforcement of [American] trade law’ and about intellectual property rights, a response to disputes with China. He spoke of how ISIS has lost 98% of their territory in the past year and how this administration will keep the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay open. Trump also spoke of how America will no longer give foreign aid to their ‘enemies’, within the context of the moment this was a clear attack on those nations who voted against America’s decision to move their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.
The speech came to an end in typical American and Trumpian fashion with members of Congress chanting ‘USA USA USA’ and the President informing those assembled and the millions watching at home that ‘it is the people who are making America great again’.
Whilst Republicans applauded throughout the speech the Democrats remained mostly silent. 14 Democratic members of Congress refused to attend the speech making this the most boycotted State of the Union in US history.
The official opposition response was delivered by Representative Joe Kennedy III, the great-nephew of assassinated president John F Kennedy, who delivered a speech with a very different message. Speaking of the fractures in society, Kennedy said ‘this is not right, this is not who we are’. The Democrat presented a message of unity and that citizens across the nation should not be considered rivals. Speaking directly to dreamers he said, ‘we will fight for you and we will not walk away’. Finally, hailing America as ‘the greatest, strongest [and] richest nation on the earth’, the 37-year-old third term congressman said that ‘[America] should not have to leave anyone behind’.
Whatever speech Donald Trump made last night he would be praised by his base and opposed by his opposition. If he was going for the unity speech that many expected, then he did not succeed. But, if he was making a speech to rally those who already supported him and forget those who suggested dissent then tonight, he succeeded.
feature image courtesy of the White House