State of the Union: For Trump, a surprisingly unremarkable speech

REUTERS/Win McNamee
President Donald Trump delivering his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

I’m a little shocked at my reaction to last night’s State of the Union address. I wished the speech could have been better. I expected it to be worse. But it wasn’t that it was middling, it was that it was such a nonevent. There was little poetry, but it did not make me ill. My top adjective for it would be “unremarkable.”

(I’m reminded of a wonderful old editor of mine from Strib days who, when I was desperate for some positive feedback to something I had just written, would say: “It doesn’t make me want to throw up.”)

I didn’t hear anyone else saying that about President Trump’s speech, at least in the immediate aftermath. It’s just my own reaction based on the low expectations I brought to the evening.

Almost nothing new or surprising

I heard almost nothing new or surprising and little that was even interesting. But the grammar scanned, more or less. Of course, he exaggerated how great everything has gone during his first year, and acknowledged no errors or regrets, but that’s well within the “unremarkable” category given what we’ve come to expect from Trump.

And he didn’t say anything weird about the Robert Mueller investigation, because he didn’t mention it at all.

I’m sure the fact-checkers will have some work to do. For example, he overstated how much his one big legislative accomplishment, the tax bill, will help ordinary Americans and ignored what a boon it was to the wealthy.

But compared to Trump Normal, and leaving aside the usual Trumpian assumption that everything good that happened in the past year is a result of his efforts (again, “unremarkable”), I thought he was on best behavior.

Here (via USA Today) is the full text, as prepared for delivery, but it’s probably close to what he delivered because he seemed to stick to the teleprompters, and read from them better than he often does. He’s not eloquent, but he was relatively well-behaved and seemed neither angry nor crazy.

Examples of sentiments’ ordinariness

Some examples of what I mean by the ordinariness of the sentiments expressed:

Over the last year, we have made incredible progress and achieved extraordinary success.  We have faced challenges we expected, and others we could never have imagined.  We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship. We endured floods and fires and storms.  But through it all, we have seen the beauty of America’s soul, and the steel in America’s spine. …

To everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else — we are with you, we love you, and we will pull through together. (Critic’s note: He got Puerto Rico in there.) …

Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground, and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.

Can’t get much more platitudinous than that, but neither does rhetoric get much safer than that.

In another example of classing up his rhetorical act, instead of just chanting “America First,” a fraught and xenophobic sounding phrase in some contexts, he (or his speechwriters) came up with this unarguable translation/explication of that phrase:  

The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities.  I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things.  I want our poor to have their chance to rise.

‘Americans are dreamers too’

I suspect he will take some grief from advocates for DACA, for one line: “Americans are dreamers too.”

You get it. I won’t explain it. But it was clever from a Trumpian perspective, and a little smack back at the clever marketer (I don’t know who it was) who succeeded in attaching the term “Dreamers” to young undocumented immigrants who benefited from President  Obama’s DACA program.

On a related subject, Trump laid out what he calls the “four pillars” of the deal he wants to make with Democrats regarding the dreamers and the wall. I don’t believe there’s much new in it. But if you didn’t watch the speech and want to get a sense of what I’ve been saying about his clinging to the teleprompters and his general unTrumpy delivery, this is a six-minute excerpt from the speech describing the “four pillars” and will also help you see how closely he was sticking to the script.

Dem response: out of the park

The assignment of responding to a State of the Union Address on behalf of the opposition party has often been a curse for rising stars who weren’t ready for prime time. But last night was an exception.

Did you know there was a member of the next generation of the Kennedy family in Congress? U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., a grandson of Bobby Kennedy, got the response-to-the-president assignment and hit it out of the park.

It was populist as all get out, delivered with passionate intensity (actually a stark contrast with Trump’s droning delivery last night), and it included a special message to the Dreamers in fluent Spanish.

“We see an economy that makes stocks soar, investor portfolios bulge and corporate profits climb but fails to give workers their fair share of the reward,” said Kennedy, 37, speaking to an audience of mostly students in a vo-tech school in the old manufacturing town of Fall River, Mass.

“We choose an economy strong enough to boast record stock prices AND brave enough to admit that top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right,” he added.

A one-minute video clip of Kennedy’s big bilingual ending is in this CNN piece.

And here’s a fact check of the Trump speech from the New York Times.

Comments (36)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 01/31/2018 - 09:59 am.

    Never have the Democrats looked so glum, sullen, & pouty

    Things could hardly be as bad as they seem to think.

    That Kennedy kid, who was presented as the UN-Trump, seemed just another contrivance in answer to Trump’s contrivance – rather wooden in delivery, to boot. While he went through the motions of saying some good things, it all seemed so cynical.

    Eric’s spin in this column is not what the Democrats need – they need critics to come to realize what is so terribly wrong with their brand.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/31/2018 - 10:28 pm.

      Yes…

      Unfortunately that brand does revolve around a foundation of:

      “The vast majority of us, regardless of race, color, religion, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, age, veteran status, etc…, face common challenges and we are in this together and must work together to make a better country”

      Whew, what a bunch of goody two shoes mush; but, that is our lot in life and we press on.

      The Republican foundation has evolved to:

      “Certain members of specific races, colors, religions, creeds, sex, sexual orientations, gender identities, national origins, ancestry, ages, veteran status, etc…, have screwed us over and we’re gonna get even big time”

      And, dear readers, that is one powerful message to a lot of folks.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/31/2018 - 10:26 am.

    Platitudinous

    I agree. Not the worst presidential speech I’ve heard, but not in the top half, either. I do wonder what sorts of people the Current Occupant has for speechwriters. Apparently, they listened to Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, but missed both the point and the cadence. “…We have faced challenges we expected, and others we could never have imagined. We have shared in the heights of victory and the pains of hardship…” reminds me not so much of soaring rhetoric as the lead-in to a network sporting event like the upcoming Olympic Games: “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

    I understand the rhetorical usefulness of call-and-response, but in order to work, it need to be delivered with passion and conviction, neither of which are strong suits of the Current Occupant.

    As for “America First,” the rhetoric: “…But as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities. I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things. I want our poor to have their chance to rise…” is from a different planet than the actions taken by both the current administration and the political party it purportedly represents. Talk is cheap, it’s the actions that count, and so far, at least, the actions argue against the rhetoric.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/31/2018 - 10:53 am.

    “Teleprompter Trump” last night.

    “Twitter Trump” every other day.

    Good to know he can read what is written for him.

    But it’s all in the deeds, not the words.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 01/31/2018 - 12:30 pm.

      Of course

      he can only read five,
      words at a time so,
      he can’t develop much of,
      a cadence, or speak an,
      entire sentence naturally.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/31/2018 - 11:39 am.

    Unremarkable?

    I saw very little of the speech, so I can’t make an overall comment on it. What I did see was remarkable, if not frightening, enough: his call for legislation to allow Cabinet Secretaries “to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”

    In other words, the civil service will no longer be politically neutral. If Secretaries get to be the sole judge of who is a “good worker,” and who is “undermining or failing,” it’s a clear indication that loyalty will be the chief criteria for government service. Federal workers will have to toe the line and at least keep silent about anything they aren’t told to say. It’s ironic, considering the squeals of indignation over allegations that tea part groups weren’t getting their exemptions from the taxes the rest of us have to pay quickly enough.

    The dissident scientists at NASA or NOAA, and the protesting National Park Rangers, had better start buffing up their resumes.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/31/2018 - 09:47 pm.

      Isn’t this how all private businesses operate? And don’t you agree that some government employees abuse their positions? On the other hand, I agree that some measure of protection is necessary…

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/01/2018 - 02:29 pm.

        Last I heard

        we were not talking about private businesses.
        Public employment has always compensated for lower pay by providing greater job security.
        This also serves to insulate the civil service from politics.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/01/2018 - 03:42 pm.

        Businessmen, They Drink my WIne

        “Isn’t this how all private businesses operate?” Not necessarily, but even if it were, so what? Government is not a private business. And no, it would not be better if government were run more like a business.

        “And don’t you agree that some government employees abuse their positions? ” How do you define “abuse?” Sloughing off work? Deliberately doing a shoddy job? Using a government jet to fly the employee and his actress wife to view an eclipse? I think we are entering a time when “abuse” will be defined as “insufficient loyalty to Our Beloved Leader.” Is that a rule you want in place when there’s a Democratic President?

        President Arthur’s single greatest achievement was taking politics out of the federal civil service. Before the Pendleton Act, government jobs–even the most insignificant–were handed out as political favors, instead of on merit. Employees kept their jobs by staying in the good graces of the party machines that got them hired. Do we really want to go back to that?

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/01/2018 - 10:03 pm.

          Remember, I said that there should be some degree of protection. But the downside of that is that government is less efficient than private businesses where lack of protection drives efficiency, at least in part.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/02/2018 - 12:30 pm.

            Efficiency

            “Efficiency” is a goal of government operations, but it is not the only one.

            Private business exists to maximize the returns to the owners of the business. It is left to the owners to judge how well the operation is meeting that goal. Government has many functions, and how and when those functions are accomplished is left to the consumers (who are also the owners).

  5. Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/31/2018 - 12:08 pm.

    Well, considering WHO was giving the speech last night . . .

    I would have to concur with your wonderful, old editor from Strib days, Eric, and say as he did: “It doesn’t make me want to throw up”.

    Considering some of the statements that President Trump has made since he took office, that’s a pretty good compliment for him, don’t you think?

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/31/2018 - 12:13 pm.

    An ad on MSNBC recently, that touted their news coverage, had a quotation by Rachel Maddow that went something like, “Don’t just watch what they say; watch what they DO!”

    I am reminded of that advice as we comment on the president’s droning ability (for once, he practiced, we’re told!) to read a speech written by someone else than him from a teleprompter. What he read off actually had lots of loft in the phrasing, but those phrases contradicted what he and the Congressional GOP have been doing since a years ago–one gasps at his rhetoric about workers in the face of what he tried to do with destroying people’s health care, and what he and the GOP did to taxes for the wealthy, for example.

    Keep in mind, too: How low a bar we have set for this incompetent and lazy president! So low, that anything looks like “up” to quasi-presidential in a set speech.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/31/2018 - 09:48 pm.

      “Don’t just watch what they say; watch what they DO!” Very funny considering that every Trump’s word is scrutinized and a bad intent is attached to it well before he does anything to follow it…

      “GOP did to taxes for the wealthy” So you insist that $1,000 is crumbs?

      • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/01/2018 - 10:34 am.

        Crumbs

        It’s crumbs to those who are handing it out as a one time publicity stunt.

      • Submitted by chuck holtman on 02/01/2018 - 12:21 pm.

        Worse than crumbs.

        First, wealth is relative and greater wealth is used to advance economic and political prerogatives. This is the dominant mechanism destroying our society today. When you give me $1,000 and the wealthy person $999,000, the long-term degradation of my economic and political rights to which this contributes is going to end up costing me a lot more than $1,000.

        Second, a tax break for all doesn’t just shower dollars out of thin air. It means less collective spending for public goods that generally are distributed more evenly than thru private spending. The Republicans have quite openly said that the reduced revenue from the tax cuts will be used as the precondition to come for Social Security, Medicaid and similar programs. If you reduce federal spending by $1 million, give me $1,000 and give the wealthy guy $999,000, you’re liquidating my (financial and psychic) share in federal programs, giving most of the cash value to the other guy, and tossing me a few coins.

  7. Submitted by chuck holtman on 01/31/2018 - 12:52 pm.

    Echoing the above commenters

    I cannot for the life of me conceive of why anyone would have any interest in Trump’s State of the Union. We know the actions of Trump and his party, and from those actions their regrettable goals. What interest would a person have in Trump’s ritual recital of words that have no connection to actions or intentions, no sincerity, no meaning? And why would a person degrade him- or herself by granting even the infinitesimal deference of attention to a man who so completely embodies the very weakest and worst of humanity?

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/31/2018 - 01:15 pm.

    Now I remember….

    I was reminded again last night why trump won and the dems lost. What a sour bunch of losers.

    The best the Dems could come up with for a response was a Kennedy? We are in the age of MeToo and they drag out a Kennedy? Did he have the same makeup artist that Richard Nixon employed?

    Of course – can you image what the liberal press would say if the roles were reversed and the GOP sent out a Bush?

    It was very entertaining night. Watching the resistance filled with hate and despair while the GOP were filled with joy and optimism was a treat.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/31/2018 - 01:37 pm.

      Gloating

      You only enjoyed his speech because liberals did not?

      Yet more proof that the American conservative stands for nothing. His stance is marked by his opposition.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/31/2018 - 03:33 pm.

      When was the last time

      that a Republican won an election while receiving millions of votes fewer than his opponent?
      The Dems problem is not that most people don’t like them.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/31/2018 - 09:48 pm.

        “The Dems problem is not that most people don’t like them.” Correct, their problems is that most people don’t like them outside of California.

        • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/01/2018 - 09:34 am.

          It’s not just California, Ilya: Note the recent Democratic wins in state and local and Congressional ballots, which foreshadow many more wins later this year.

          Which also explains why so many top Congressional Republicans are “retiring” from their positions! They don’t want to get washed in the wave of Democratic wins this fall. Latest to go, with no real reason: Gowdy, the guy who (under Nunes) has been the stalwart GOPer on the House Intelligence Committee that is risking the country’s security to create doubts about the Mueller examination of the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, to elect Trump.

          Gowdy is the Great Mind who spent almost three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to prove that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for the disaster at Benghazi. He culdn’t do it, in the end, but he made a lot of empty noise.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/01/2018 - 10:05 pm.

            “Note the recent Democratic wins in state and local and Congressional ballots” I did. But first, it doesn’t mean that Democrats are liked, just that Republicans were disliked there more (or had a terrible candidate). And please note that this was all before people started getting their “crumbs”

            • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/02/2018 - 11:15 am.

              Bread and circuses

              And here I thought Republicans were the ones always scorning Democrats for being the party of “giving people stuff”.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/02/2018 - 12:28 pm.

              Liked or Disliked

              “But first, it doesn’t mean that Democrats are liked, just that Republicans were disliked there more (or had a terrible candidate)” There are many Trump voters who make the apology that it wasn’t that they supported Trump, but that they disliked Clinton enough to foist a racist authoritarian bully on the country.

              Do you see a pattern here?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/01/2018 - 02:32 pm.

          Last I heard

          California was part of the United States, and its residents were citizens with the right to a vote in the House of Representatives. As it is, Californians are under-represented in the House of Lords (er, Senate) compared to, say, Wyoming.

  9. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 01/31/2018 - 01:59 pm.

    Glad I Didn’t Watch

    I never see the SOTUs because they are all very much the same, only the left’s has become more beside themselves.
    The Dems can scream at whatever they want, which is not unusual anyway. But they seem to have set themselves up for some serious problems in the coming election because their behavior last night is going to be shown on political ads this summer and fall.
    Talk of lowering taxes for all? Picture of the glum Dems who don’t support it and pictures of Pelosi and DWS only excited about ‘crumbs.’
    Talk of making our country safe and valuing our military? More pictures of glum Dems.
    Talk of wanting to make a deal with immigration? More pictures of glum Dems.
    All of this is because its the GOP and especially Trump. You don’t have to like Trump, most don’t. But he has been getting things done that many want from him and the Dems are playing into his hands. And the Dems keep playing along, getting worse and worse.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/31/2018 - 02:58 pm.

      Be clear on who has been doing what: Trump has no idea of what’s actually in the tax bill, which was written and revised (in secret and turning an absolute cold shoulder to all Democrats) by the Republicans in Congress. Trump had (has) no grasp whatsoever of health care law, so he blathered on ignorantly about Obamacare and refused to pay attention to the millions of Americans who DID finally understand how Obamacare benefited them and protested GOP moves to demolish it. And the economy–with the exception of the sudden stock market “bubble” tht will burst pretty soon–is just toddling along the way it had under Obama, who is the one who saved it and oversaw the steady recovery from The Great Recession.

      And so on. Most Americans can’t stand Donald Trump. And those of us who follow the news fairly closely know that he’s just the figurehead, empty, but with a big black pen that he uses to sign things for the GOP and then holds up a folder showing his big signature, like a proud kindergartner with Show and Tell.

      As one Republican leader said at one point in late autumn: “He’ll sign anything we put in front of him.”

      Of course we’re glum!!

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/31/2018 - 09:46 pm.

        “And the economy–with the exception of the sudden stock market “bubble” tht will burst pretty soon–is just toddling along the way it had under Obama, who is the one who saved it and oversaw the steady recovery from The Great Recession” So economy now is Obama’s but a bubble burst will be Trump’s, right? Is there any logic here?

        “And those of us who follow the news fairly closely know that he’s just the figurehead, empty, but with a big black pen that he uses to sign things for the GOP” Again, Trump can’t be just a figurehead AND a powerful autocrat who will destroy freedom at the same time…

    • Submitted by Larry Moran on 01/31/2018 - 03:56 pm.

      Glad I Didn’t Watch

      Apparently, you haven’t watched the SOTU for years. The party in power always stands and cheers. The party out of power always sits on their hands. If you don’t remember, I’ll bet that website Youtube (just Google it and you’ll find it) has all of the previous occupant’s speeches available to review. See how many Republicans are standing and clapping when Obama spoke of health care for all. Or the improving economy. Or anything else. And interestingly, not one Democrat got up and yelled “You lie!” though I expect that some were tempted a number of times.

  10. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 01/31/2018 - 04:07 pm.

    Obvioulsy there are some real differences in perception.

    After reading the comments here its pretty clear that we are looking at the same thing but seeing two totally different things. The majority of Americans see in Trump a deceitful, hateful human being. We see him as someone who couldn’t tell the truth if his life depended on it. (His freedom may and that’s why his lawyer walked back Trumps statement about looking forward to testifying under oath for Mueller. His own people know he can’t help himself when it comes to telling lies, so they would never let him testify under oath.)

    His supporters on the other hand see some great truth teller, a man of the people. Its really weird, but here we are.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/05/2018 - 11:45 am.

      His Supporters

      “His supporters on the other hand see some great truth teller, a man of the people.”

      Not necessarily. Many of them also see a “deceitful, hateful human being.” That’s part of his attraction for them. They like that he makes liberals mad, or that he fills “the resistance” with “hate and despair.” Policy? They don’t care. Bad character? Well, he’s one of theirs so conduct that would lead to the impeachment of an officeholder from another party is not just tolerated, but celebrated.

      It’s all about starting a fight. This is why you can’t take conservatives seriously when they whine about “divisiveness.”

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