State of the Union address: conventional, safe and moderate
Donald Trump became a man reading carefully from a teleprompter rather than the president of the United States of America
As the great and the good of Washington’s political elite filed into the hallowed chamber of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night, a quiet hush descended.
Just after 9pm in Washington the 45th president of the United States made his way into the packed room, taking his time as he walked down the central aisle, picking out faces from the crowd and shaking the hands of Republicans who crowded to greet him.
From a gallery above, Melania Trump, who broke with tradition by not travelling to the Capitol with her husband, and Trump’s four adult children looked down on proceedings.
As the clock struck 9.05pm Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman turned politician, took to the podium and began to speak.
The State of the Union is one of the most cherished American political traditions, dating back to the foundation of the Union when George Washington delivered the first address to Congress in its temporary home in New York.
In a political system that prides itself on the separation of powers, it offers a rare opportunity for the president to make the journey across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Capitol Hill and directly address the two Houses of Congress. More importantly – particularly for a president obsessed by ratings – the address is an opportunity to speak to an audience of tens of millions of Americans, many of whom will be voting in November’s mid-term elections.
As expected, on Tuesday night Donald Trump sought to strike a note of unity. He began his speech with a pledge to make America great again “for all Americans.” Outlining how the country has made “incredible progress and achieved extraordinary success” over the past year, he painted a picture of an America energised and enriched by the past year – a characterisation that many in America would fail to recognise as the country grapples with one of the most divisive presidents in history. “Over the last year, the world has seen what we always knew: that no people on Earth are so fearless, or daring, or determined as Americans,” he said. “If there is a mountain, we climb it. If there is a frontier, we cross it. If there is a challenge, we tame it. If there is an opportunity, we seize it.”
In many ways his speech was conventional and safe, as he revived many of his campaign pledges without providing much new detail.
The recent Republican tax reform package featured strongly, as Trump celebrated the “biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.”
Similarly, the president vowed to tackle trade imbalances, claiming that “the era of economic surrender is over.” America, he claimed, had “finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our Nation’s wealth”.
On immigration, Trump reiterated his offer of a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, in exchange for funding for his border wall and an end to the visa lottery programme. But his suggestion of a neat, bipartisan solution to reform America’s “outdated immigration rules” and his offer to extend a hand to Democrats belied the bitter battles that lie ahead in Congress on the issue.
In keeping with previous state of the union addresses, the president’s speech was peppered with anecdotes highlighting the individual stories of the President’s invited guests. Among the attendees in the gallery along with the Trump family were the parents of Otto Warmbier, the US student who died last year two days after returning from captivity in North Korea, a North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho who lost two limbs in a harrowing tale of deprivation and torture, and the family of two young girls who were killed by members of the MK-13 gang in Long Island, many of whom had come to America as undocumented alien minors as Trump reminded his audience.
At times the president sought to branch out from specifics, attempting to articulate a broader vision of a shared American identity. His speech hit on some traditional American values - “the dignity of a hard day’s work,” the right of “every child to be safe in their home at night,” an America where every citizen is “proud of this land that we love.”
But his attempts at channelling some higher ideal of national identity seemed to fall flat.
As the Republican-dominated chamber erupted in applause at several points, Trump’s voice sounded curiously subdued in the cavernous space.
By refraining from the inflammatory rhetoric of the campaign trail, Trump lost much of the fiery verve that won over his supporters in the first place.
This was no John F Kennedy or Barack Obama. Instead, stripped of his more incendiary rhetoric, Donald Trump was left somewhat exposed, becoming a man reading carefully from a teleprompter rather than the president of the United States of America.
By seeking to strike a more moderate tone the risk is that Trump may have disappointed many of his core supporters, while failing to win over Democrats, many of whom booed and grimaced when he spoke about ending chain migration.
But as the speech finished up after one hour and twenty minutes and Trump stepped down from the lectern and into the chamber, the old Donald Trump returned. As he waded through the crowd signing autographs and flashing his smile, he was back in his comfort zone and back to the next challenge. In the world of Donald Trump, last night’s State of the Union speech may be soon forgotten as another chapter in the ever-changing Trump presidency.