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

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, I thought he was on best behavior.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.