After months of partisan posturing culminating in the delay of the State of the Union (SOTU) address, President Donald Trump’s presented a call for bipartisanship and a return to national pride and progress Tuesday night.
Unsurprisingly, reactions to the speech were starkly divided along party lines.
“Every State of the Union address presents a unique challenge for a president and his or her speech writers, that of having to talk to multiple, and in this case disparate audiences, through the same message, which rarely happens in today’s world of narrowcasting,” said Sarah Worley, associate professor of communication at Juniata College. “There is important symbolic significance in a president delivering a message directly to a joint session of Congress where all three branches are present in the same room, while also being watched by the American people and having every facial expression and clap analyzed.”
The President’s message, at 82 minutes in length, was the third-longest in history.
“It was very long. I think it was also a bit disjointed in terms of the way he jumped from topic to topic and disjointed in the sense that his rhetoric about bipartisanship does not seem to match his rhetoric outside of the State of the Union, which tends to be divisive and prone to attacks on those he dislikes,” said Dennis Plane, professor of politics at Juniata College. “His rhetoric of bipartisanship and working together is a tough sell given the fact that he is so divisive in every other format. It was very much a message of ‘do what I say, not what I do.’”
Plane added that the President’s actions in the coming days will tell the tale as to whether he is prepared to follow up his words with actions.
“If he is ready to engage in bipartisanship, it will show in the next few days,” he said. “If he refrains from attacking those who disagree with him, stays off Twitter and reaches out to Democrats, we will see if his actions match his words.”
One of the messages of unity displayed at the SOTU required no words at all.
“Congressional Democratic women took full advantage of the opportunity presented by this occasion by wearing white to honor suffragists and commemorate the record number of women serving in this Congress, a fact that President Trump also noted in his speech, creating a rare moment in the speech that seemed to garner genuine bipartisan celebration,” Worley said.
The visual effect of the white against the traditional dark blazers was exceptional.
“I was surprised at how visually striking it was,” said Plane. “It was done very intentionally. Democrats were essentially waging proxy protests with the white outfits for women as well as the various guests, including undocumented immigrants, was a very effective strategy.”
Across the aisle, those invited by the Republicans included World War II heroes and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men to walk on the moon.
“The address had a very populist flair. It was filled with red meat patriotism. That included attacks on socialism, praise for astronauts and praise for World War II heroes,” he said. “It was as if he was trying to say, ‘Remember when the United States was great? Let’s make America great again,’ which tied back to his central campaign slogan. It probably spoke very well to his base.”
Policy proposals which were met with thunderous applause from his supporters included lowering prescription drug costs and funding for infrastructure improvements.
Worley observed that in the effort to unify the parties through the celebration past triumphs, the opposite may have resulted.
“Using multiple references to World War II and the Apollo 11 mission, President Trump drew heavily upon historical references in an attempt to remind the audience of our shared past and successes, implying that in the future as in the past, Americans can work together to find solutions,” said Worley. “However, the overall tone of this speech and the use of partisan language and issues, made it sound more like a campaign speech intended to rally his base, rather than a speech intended to build common ground or invite compromise across party lines.”
President Trump did not shy away from thorny topics, including ongoing federal investigation into his administration.
“A particularly stark moment in the speech occurred when President Trump relied on a classic fallacy of reasoning, and presented the audience with a false dilemma, saying, ‘If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!,’” said Worley, “This type of statement presents the audience with a false choice by suggesting that Congress’s ability to legislate successfully while also investigating potential legal violations cannot occur simultaneously, and could easily be interpreted as a threat to bog down the legislative process if investigations continue.”
Plane express his belief that these comments are likely to raise the ire of many Democrats who believe the administration is “fundamentally corrupt.”
“The chants of ‘USA’ will play very well with his supporters, as will his calls for building the wall, which he didn’t back down from at all,” he said. “Even while talking about bipartisanship, he talks about building the wall no matter what, which is very divisive. His pivot to scaling back some laws regarding abortion is also going to be divisive.”
Conspicuously absent from the SOTU was any mention of the recent government shutdown or the possibility for another in the coming week.
“The shutdown was a big loser for President Trump,” Plane said. “He didn’t get anything out of it. The only thing he did get out of it was lower approval ratings.”
Worley pointed out the president also omitted references to lost control of the House and the issue of climate change.
The SOTU address was also historically significant as Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, delivered the Democratic response at the conclusion of the speech, marking the first time an African American woman has done so.