On Jan. 30, 2018, a few weeks ago, President Donald Trump gave his first state of the union address. The state of the union address, given annually by the president to a joint session of congress, is as old as the country itself. Outlined in article II, section 3 of the constitution it states, “He [the president] shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Each president has performed this duty, but for most of the nation’s history it was delivered in written form. Woodrow Wilson began the practice of giving the address in person in 1913, and today we watch the state of the union address on our TV and on the internet.
The state of the union address has been used for a variety of political purposes, but each address includes a broad economic report on the state of the economy, and usually includes a summary of the global diplomatic situation. In addition, the address details the president’s recommendations for congress on where to focus their attention, and a general agenda for the coming year. Donald Trump’s address is remarkably similar to his predecessors’ in this way. He touted a growing economy, and addressed the issues in the middle east and on the Korean peninsula. This is mostly where the similarities ended.
In full force throughout his entire speech was the much-expected continued appeal to his base. Language and rhetoric reminiscent of his campaign speeches of 2016 made its way into most parts of his speech, with even a few “make America great again”s included (albeit sparingly.) He continues to encourage a strong immigration stance, even if his tone has softened. He praised his administration’s tax policy and more proactive foreign policy, but framed these as “America’s” or the “people’s” victory. Whether you believe that or not, it is par for the course of a president trying to boost his approval. Most notably was the president’s attention to his many special guests. He praised first-responders and military individuals for their bravery, but the standout appearances were by Otto Warmbier’s parents and Seong-ho. Otto Warmbier was an American who was tortured in prison in North Korea and died shortly after being released. Seong-ho is a former North Korean citizen who escaped to the south and works with others to help them escape the regime. Both of these appearances are timely as Trump and Kim Jong Un face off on the world stage.
Among his many claimed goals, Trump mention several times that we need to be united as a country and that he wanted to be a bipartisan president moving forward. This has been met with as much praise as it has disdain, as many of his political opponents are not convinced this means what he wants us to think it does. Other portions of his speech that received heavy criticism were his desire to increase our already bloated military spending and to continue to keep Guantanamo Bay open.
Ultimately, this state of the Union address was relatively tame compared to Trump’s other speeches. Any attacks on his political enemies were more subtle, and he noticeably avoided very controversial topics such as abortion, and framed his immigration policy as positive for immigrants who are “hardworking” and share our values. The campaign rhetoric continues, and it remains to be seen if his calls for unity are empty or if there is real substance behind them.