Editor’s note: This column was written prior to President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress Feb. 27.
President Donald Trump did not call his address to Congress Feb. 28 a State of the Union.
A newly elected president’s first address before Congress and the nation is technically not a State of the Union address. It’s “an address to a joint session.”
A president must be in office one year before he gives a State of the Union Address. That makes sense since it would take that long for a new president to have done anything that merits discoursing on. Semantics aside, Trump has done everything he can to give the appearance that his presidency will be the most unorthodox, unconventional and precedent shattering of any administration. So, the wonder is he didn’t take it all the way and simply tweet in his address.
However, Trump, as all newly minted presidents know, will be watched by the biggest audience any politician could ever hope to have watch and listen to them. And presidents take full advantage of the moment since traditionally a State of the Union Address can boost the stature, prestige and power of their presidency. It can even bump up a president’s approval rating by a point or two.
Presidents also know that the opposition’s response to their speech is feeble, pale, and little watched or counted by Americans. In some cases, the opposition response can even backfire. That happens when the rebuttal comes off across as a mean-spirited, partisan, petty rant against the president.
The Republican Party got deservedly plastered with that charge in just about every rebuttal it gave to President Barack Obama’s state addresses.
If Trump stays on script, the odds are that his address won’t do what these addresses are supposed to do, and that’s fine-tune the administration’s policy, draw a roadmap for the nation of where his administration is going, and add luster to the president’s image. Just look at how other presidents have done that.
President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln flatly called for the end of slavery in the rebellious states. That was the prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation he issued a year later.
Woodrow Wilson warned of the dangers of impending war in 1913. Woodrow Wilson outlined the famed four freedoms in 1941. Lyndon Johnson unveiled the outlines of his Great Society program to fight poverty in 1965.
Bill Clinton unveiled his health care reform plan in 1993. George Bush in his State of the Union speeches in 2002 and 2003 prepped the nation for the Iraq invasion. Presidents quickly latched on to the media to give their State of the Union speech more exposure and political wallop. Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast in 1923. Truman gave the first televised broadcast in 1947.
Those were all conventional presidents and politicians who played within the system’s ground rules, respected the traditions of office and gave a nod to bipartisan, country, not party, let alone ego and self, first in their addresses. None of that applies with Trump.
He’s picked fights with the Democratic Party leadership, the press, the courts and even some in his own party. His string of accomplishments include trying to gut consumer protection regulations, pecking away at the Affordable Care Act, terrorizing lawful immigrants to the country and loud threats to swiftly send anyone who sets foot in the U.S. without papers back to where they came.
When he gets to his signature campaign issues of job creation, health care and tax reform, don’t expect much in the way of details. Instead, Trump will fill up the teleprompter with his stock rhetorical fluff about bringing jobs back to America, whacking down taxes even more for the rich and corporations, and getting rid of Obamacare.
There’s also not a lot he can really say about foreign policy besides bluster about making America a military muscle man that strikes fear in friend and foe alike, maybe making China the whipping boy on trade and currency, and claiming that he’s got ISIS on the permanent run. The one nation and leader, though that you can bet, will either get short shrift, or no mention at all from Trump’s foreign policy diatribe, will be Russia.
If one counts, Trump almost certainly will smash the Guinness Book of Records for the number of times that he’ll use the pronoun “I” in referencing anything about his presidency and the nation. It will be a case study in how one man sees himself as the all-knowing, always right, fount of personal and political wisdom.
There will be no room on his throne to share even a sliver of the limelight with anyone not named Trump. In this sense, it can rightly be said that Trump’s non-State of the Union will be an address not of the State of the Union, but the state of Trump.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “In Scalia’s Shadow: The Trump Supreme Court” ( Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.