Yes: Trump hit a grand slam and touched all bases; Democrats looked glum
By virtually any traditional measure — as well as a few nontraditional measures — President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) address was a great success. Let us count the ways.
The polls: A CBS poll released shortly after the speech reported that 75 percent of those watching approved of it, and 80 percent said the president was trying to unite the country. Importantly, two-thirds said the speech made them feel proud.
In a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 35 percent of those watching gave the president an “A” for his speech and 25 percent gave him a “B.” Only 26 percent gave him either a “D” or “F.”
Those numbers would be good for any president’s State of the Union address. But given Trump’s usually low approval ratings, that’s a very positive response.
The audience: The Nielsen Company reported that 45.6 million people watched the State of the Union message on TV. That was the sixth largest SOTU audience, a solid turnout, though not a record.
Of course, Nielsen’s numbers only reflected cable and broadcast TV networks. However, more and more people are bypassing TV and viewing such events online, so total viewership likely was much larger than the official number.
The tone: Trump appeared presidential in his demeanor, gracious to the opposition — supporting several policy initiatives that Democrats want — and he stayed on message. All three tasks can be challenging for this president. So when he achieves them, it’s a huge success.
Ironically, Trump’s presidential stature during the speech was magnified, rather than diminished, by the Democrats’ sour faces. It’s common for the opposition party to remain in their seats more and applaud less than the president’s party. But in this case, Democrats looked bitter and dejected — even when the president highlighted the achievement of widely shared goals such as low black and Hispanic unemployment rates.
The catchy phrases: State of the Union addresses seldom rise to the level of high oratory. The speeches are more notable for a few catchy phrases that stick in people’s minds, and Trump’s was no exception.
One of Trump’s best was the comment that “Americans are dreamers, too,” which took a potent political issue — illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, referred to as “Dreamers” — and turned the notion on its head, making it apply to American citizens who also dream of achieving their goals
The human connection: Since Ronald Reagan’s 1982 address, SOTU speeches have increasingly put a human face on political and policy issues.
Trump drew attention to several people sitting in the gallery, including a young man who put flags on veterans’ graves, two families whose daughters were killed by gang members and a North Korean who escaped to freedom.
Every president incorporates the practice in their SOTU address these days, but none more effectively than Trump.
The wins: With 45 million-plus people watching, State of the Union addresses provide a platform for a president to tout his successes. Trump had a number of them, especially with respect to the economy, and he wasn’t bashful about sharing them.
But the successes have to be experienced to be effective. President Barack Obama used to boast about economic recovery and the benefits of his health care law, but those claims just didn’t ring true for millions of Americans.
By contrast, Trump’s claim of a surging economy is reflected in news headlines and growing public optimism — and completely believable.
The State of the Union has become a political showcase, where Americans who seldom pay much attention to politics can hear the president make the best case he — and eventually she — can for the country and his policies.
If the public comes away from that address informed, encouraged and proud, it was a successful speech. The polls show Donald Trump did exactly that.
Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation. He holds a doctorate in the humanities from the University of Texas. Readers may write him at IPI, Suite 820, 1320 Greenway Drive, Irving, TX, 75038 Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.
No: Trump’s first State of the Union: too many alternate facts, too few moments of truth
President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech to Congress was by any reasonable assessment a disaster.
While the historic use of the State of the Union has certainly varied over the decades, much more often than not presidents have used this unique opportunity to not only lay out a vision for policy, but also to lay out that vision in broad unifying terms.
The goal, one can assume, being to provide an opportunity for the public at-large to connect to the president’s policies and feel good about items in the agenda for which they may not have already had a supportive connection.
At times, Trump perhaps achieved this goal in a phrase or sentence or two. However, as he is far too often guilty of, he immediately descended into clearly divisive language obliterating any momentary goodwill that might have been gained.
This is not to say that no other president has hit partisan tones or that none have appealed nakedly to their ideological base. But, the dedication to division that Trump seems unable to escape by far outpaces anything his predecessors employed.
The blatant division alone would be enough for me to emphasize. Trump’s first State of the Union was so poor that my red editing pen is just getting started.
Another clearly faulty part of the president’s speech was the assault on truth through a series of blatant lies and moving on to a healthy dose of misrepresentation of fact.
Fact checkers around the globe were in frantic overtime throughout and following the president’s delivery finding dozens of such problems.
Of course, past presidents have certainly not been completely honest. Where Trump makes his divergence is in the frequency and depth of his misrepresentations.
Whether it was false claims about job creation, United States energy exports, the size and impact of recent tax cuts or the steady stream of misrepresentations related to immigration, this speech was long on distortions and short on reality.
Of course this pattern, coming from an administration that entered its term a year ago by introducing the phrase “alternative facts”, should be no surprise even if it is wholly frustrating to those hoping for a functional government and society.
The question we are seeking an answer to, however, is how to move past or around a president so dedicated to division and distortion?
While I’d be delighted to share a simple fix, the last point about the president’s speech is an enormous roadblock to progressing past his divisive and distorted nature.
Every breath, phrase and decision Donald Trump takes and makes is dedicated to one aim. Dedicated to the service of one person. Dedicated to the service of one ego. His.
Division allows his fragile psyche validation. Distortion further creates division and the alternate reality by which he can see his every move as “tremendous” and anyone who disagrees as wrong.
Quite unfortunately, many of the people closest to Trump are unable or unwilling to challenge his ego or his insecurity.
Instead they employ some combination of silence, misguided encouragement, protection or deflection and continue to enable this personally and professionally dangerous behavior.
As the leader of the Trump organization perhaps this could simply be normal operating, but as president of the United States the stakes are too high if they continue unchecked.
The State of the Union speech delivered last week was far too divisive, far too distorted from reality, and far too self-serving to one person’s massive and insecure ego.
If those were the aims of the speech, then perhaps it was an internal success but as a useful exercise in unifying the United States and moving our nation toward a successful future it was and is a tragic failure of leadership.
Don Kusler is national director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the nation’s most experienced progressive advocacy organization. Readers may write him at ADA, 1629 K Street NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20006.