With President Trump’s job approval still hovering at 40 percent in the Real Clear Politics average, it’s understandable he used Tuesday’s State of the Union address as a means of bolstering his image. Unlike a campaign rally speech or even his Twitter feed, a State of the Union speech provides an opportunity for any president to speak directly to the American people without filtration.
While the constitution mandates the president report to Congress on the State of the Union, nothing requires it be a staged televised event. Unfortunately, that is the current iteration of the yearly process. Therefore, presidents make it an opportunity to launch initiatives, spell out policy proposals and urge the members sitting before them to act on legislation. All of it happens while at the same time providing opportunities for people in the media to count the number of standing ovations the president receives throughout the night.
Trump’s speech contained the usual amount of bragging presidents offer up to those watching. It’s become a common practice as well, for the president to have guests in the gallery and to give them a shout-out and tell their story. Whoever did the research and gathered up the people Trump spoke about in his speech deserves a raise because every one of them had an inspiring story to tell. Even the Democrats, who tried to stay seated the entire evening knew how bad a look it would be if they continued to sit through the ovations received President Trump’s guests.
Trump’s speech will likely receive a positive reception from the public (something that will drive resistance people out of their minds), and many Republicans will think, “If this version of Trump existed every day, his approval ratings would be ten points higher!” and they’d be right. That said, despite all of the cheers and tears, the speech, despite a length of nearly 90 minutes did lack in one particular area: policy.
Outside of immigration where he struck a more conciliatory tone, highlighted by an overemphasis on the dangers of MS-13, he spent more time outlining goals than he did expanding on particular policy proposals. It’s understandably difficult to traverse the muddied waters of policy during a State of the Union address. It’s not a time for specifics, but Trump could have laid out some broad strokes or fired off some dollar figures but didn’t.
Even when he spoke of infrastructure, he said, “Tonight, I’m calling on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment that our country so desperately needs.” If you notice he asks for a bill that generates $1.5 trillion, not one that spends $1.5 trillion. It’s not about whether one disagrees with spending that much but more about highlighting President Trump’s (and his staff’s) unwillingness to lay down a marker to build upon that will get the ball rolling.
Trump brought up the opioid crisis in America but again, did not outline any ideas for how to deal with the issue. Here are his words:
These reforms will also support our response to the terrible crisis of opioid and drug addiction. Never before has it been like it is now. It is terrible. We have to do something about it. In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses. 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour. We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge. My administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need. For those who have been so terribly hurt. The struggle will be long and it will be difficult, but as Americans always do, in the end, we will succeed. We will prevail.
At that point, Trump moved on to tell the story of guests he had in the gallery that related directly to the opioid issue, but once he relayed the story, he moved on to discuss national defense.
It’s an election year so Republicans legislators will be hesitant to tackle issues that will give Democrats ammunition against them in November. But they rely on the president to lead the way. After this speech, they’ll ask themselves, “What are we supposed to do?”
They may not have an answer.