By Kate McCarthy ’23
President Thomas Jefferson never gave a State of the Union address to Congress. He wrote the address but had it delivered to Congress via a clerk, starting a tradition that would last more than one hundred years, ending with Woodrow Wilson addressing Congress in-person in 1913. Jefferson believed that delivering the speech was unnecessarily time-consuming and did not give legislators ample time to prepare a response. Many of his fellow party members viewed the president delivering the address as the mirror image of a speech from the throne, in which the monarch addresses the legislature at the opening of parliament. When President Donald Trump gave his State of the Union address, he ascended to his demagogic throne and legislators had no problem responding in the moment, without time to prepare.
At the State of the Union, tensions were high as the final vote of the trial on impeachment and removal from office was the following day. In accordance with tradition, President Trump handed Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi copies of his speech, and when Pelosi extended her arm for a hand shake, Trump ignored her gesture. This rejection of bipartisanship and refusal to act rationally towards a member of the federal government proceeds an administration typical of such behavior and foreshadowed the entire address. This was confirmed by Speaker Pelosi’s smile and shrug after the handshake was denied, as she did not seem surprised by the President’s actions.
Before President Trump began to speak, chanting from the Republican members of Congress made it seem more like a MAGA rally than a dignified tradition between the president and Congress. “Four more years! Four more years!” was heard not only by the Democratic members of Congress shaking their heads, but by all Americans tuning in, many of whom either felt enchanted or invigorated by the repetition of those three words. The president started by saying, “Three years ago, we launched the great American comeback,” a statement designed to tee-up a series of claims of economic success, defense of the health care system, strides on illegal immigration, the border wall, and renewal of American “values.” The president boasted about record numbers in job and income growth, the unemployment rate, a strong military, and that the country is “highly respected again.” However, a closer look at the facts reveal that the “great American comeback,” in reality, is the great American setback.
Stating America is once again highly respected is a dubious claim, as it was only two months prior when world leaders such as Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, French President Macron, Netherlands Prime Minister Rutte, British Prime Minister Johnson, and Princess Anne were filmed mocking Trump’s behavior. The president said that his administration ended “years of economic decay,” meanwhile the economy had actually been growing steadily for years before he took office. Trump also said that the economy is “the best it has ever been,” with a gross domestic product growth of 2.3 percent. However, according to factcheck.org, a project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, inflation-adjusted GDP grew 2.9 percent in 2015, 3.8 percent in 2004, and 3.5 percent in 2005. On job growth under his administration, Trump declared, “since my election, we have created 7 million new jobs” and that the “years of economic decay are over.” However, in the 35 months before he took office, nearly 8 million jobs were added; the rate of job growth has slowed under the Trump Administration. At the end of January, Trump signed the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he estimates “will create nearly 100,000 new high-paying American auto jobs,” while the U.S. International Trade Commission says it will be closer to 28,000 jobs over five years. Boasting that over one-hundred miles of the border wall have been completed, Trump did not mention that ninety-nine of these miles consisted of replacing existing barriers—only one mile of new border wall extending the border wall’s length was built.
Trump has been a strong supporter of Republican efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act, which is why it came as a surprise to many when he said, “I’ve also made an ironclad pledge to American families: We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions.” Proposed Republican health plans, if adopted, would have charged those with preexisting conditions higher premiums. In the energy sector, Trump also claimed major gains: “The United States has become the number one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world, by far,” and credits this feat to “our bold regulatory reduction campaign.” However, the United States has been the top producer of natural gas since 2009 and petroleum production in 2013, both of which were well before Trump was elected.
Seeing as many of these “facts” presented by the President are misleading, it still does not account for all of what makes the acclaimed “American comeback” the American setback. The president proclaimed, “The state of our union is stronger than ever before,” however, the down-the-middle split between those standing and cheering and those sitting down and shaking their heads says otherwise. Echoes of the president’s campaign talking points could be heard throughout the speech in lines such as, “Our job is to put America first,” and topics such as religious liberty and gun rights. The president promised to always protect Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms and expressed his devotion to defending religious liberty, such as the right to pray in public schools. Trump announced that the U.S. will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, joining the government and private sector to plant trees around the world. However, this effort to help the environment seems to be cancelled out by his efforts to deregulate the Environmental Protection Agency and roll back many Obama-era proposals.
For the first time in history, the Presidential Medal of Freedom was awarded during the State of the Union, with First Lady Melania Trump putting the highest civilian honor on conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. The president justified giving the award to be “in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity.” The awarding of this medal to Limbaugh is a great source of controversy, as he is known to make sexist and racist remarks and spread conspiracies, such as the claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. For instance, Limbaugh has said that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society, ” and when talking about the dangers of smoking: “That is a myth. That has been disproven at the World Health Organization and the report was suppressed. There is no fatality whatsoever.” The message sent to the American people by awarding Rush Limbaugh is in direct contrast to what Trump said during his speech about inclusivity: “We are…lifting our citizens of every race, color, religion and creed very, very high.”
Contentions were especially high during discussion on prescription drug prices and bipartisanship. Trump stated, “I’m calling for bipartisan legislation that achieves the goal of dramatically lowering prescription drug prices. Get a bill on my desk, and I will sign it into law immediately.” House Democrats began holding up three fingers and chanting “H.R. 3! H.R. 3!” They were referring to the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which would require Medicare to negotiate for lower prices on life-saving medications. The bill was passed by the House back in December, and is now indefinitely waiting for Senate approval.
Although most of the State of the Union consisted of Republicans standing and cheering and Democrats sitting unamused, there were points of unity in which both sides expressed support. This includes Trump’s remarks on criminal justice reform, support of the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognition of Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen from World War II, a newly signed law providing parents in the federal workforce paid family leave, a need to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, and working towards ending America’s wars in the Middle East.
With the closing remarks of the State of the Union came an unexpected response from Speaker Pelosi. Once the speech was finished and the crowd began to cheer, the Speaker began to tear up her copy of the President’s speech, section by section. The act has been called into question by many, but Speaker Pelosi defended her actions at a press conference, stating that Trump’s address reflected a “state of mind that had no contact with reality whatsoever,” and that she “tore up a manifesto of mistruths.”
Following the State of the Union, the Democratic response was given by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who emphasized how Democrats across the country have been fighting for hard working Americans, Speaker Pelosi and House Democrats have passed a “landmark bill on equal pay” that will increase the minimum wage, and legislation will give Medicare the power to negotiate lower drug prices, all of which are “gathering dust on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk.”
In response to not only the State of the Union, but also the impeachment trial that was at the time still pending, Whitmer said something that all Americans should heed in order to create a true American comeback: “The truth matters. Facts matter. And no one should be above the law…Listen to what people say, but watch what they do.”