For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
On Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union Address to a highly polarized joint session of the U.S. Congress and a politically divided American people. One year ago, the president spoke to Congress after his inauguration, but this was his first official State of the Union, with the president both defending his first year in office and laying out his vision for his second year as the country moves toward the mid-term elections in November.
As has been a frequent historical custom of past presidents, Trump on this night made a conspicuous effort to reach out to both parties, to extend an olive branch after a bitter and often rancorous first year and with many Democrats openly talking about moving to impeach him should they secure control of Congress in November.
From the very start of his address, the president stressed the theme of unity, reminding Congress and the nation of the uniqueness of America and Americans.
“The state of our union,” he said, “is strong. Because the strength of our people is strong.” The president used the word “together” 13times, “we” 129 times and repeatedly celebrated the ways that Americans come together in times of natural disaster and crisis. “Tonight,” he said, “I want to talk about what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of Nation we are going to be. All of us, together, as one team, one people and one American family.”
While the president has received praise from many in the pro-life movement and among the millions concerned about the state of the family and religious liberty, he did not focus intently on those issues.
“In America,” he declared, “we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life. Our motto is ‘In God we trust.’” He mentioned his picks for the judiciary — most so his choice of Justice Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court — and his defense of religious liberty. And in homage to the strength of American families, he spoke of the heroic decision of a New Mexico police officer, Ryan Holets, and his wife to adopt the child of a woman who was about to inject heroin. In that moment, Holets heard God speak to him, "You will do it - because you can." He and his wife named their adopted child, Hope.
Trump, however, was centered chiefly on his political agenda and on highlighting what are generally recognized as his greatest accomplishments before a national audience. That meant the economy which has risen in the last year, his record tax cut and his foreign policy efforts to fight terrorism and threats to global stability, most notably North Korea and ISIS (the Islamic State terrorist group).
This is all sound political strategy. A new study released just before the speech by the Pew Research Center found that Americans’ positive views of economic conditions are near the highest point in a decade.
He took credit for the statistic that since the election, “we have created 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone. After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages. Unemployment claims have hit a 45-year low. African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded, and Hispanic-American unemployment has also reached the lowest levels in history.” And he described the many benefits from “the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history.”
Notably, his foreign policy declarations were unusually restrained rhetorically. The president’s team knows that Americans are worried about terror. The Pew Study found that defending against terrorism is at the very top of the list for 73% of Americans when it comes to the priorities they want to see from the president and Congress. Trump cited the sanctions on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela, but spoke in particular about the regime in North Korea. Rather than taunting North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un as he has been wont to do, the president described the mysterious death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died just days after his return from North Korea, and on the heroic example of Ji Seong-ho, who escaped the regime that tortured him and murdered his father. In honoring Ji Seong-ho’s extraordinary courage, both sides of the aisle stood and cheered.
Trump also took credit for the rout of ISIS, noting that the “coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100% of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria.” More controversial were his decisions to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to keep open the controversial detention center at Guantanamo.
Similarly, the stony silence and isolated jeers that greeted much of his agenda also revealed anew the extent of the gulf that exists in the capital and across the nation
His four-point plan on immigration has elements that might satisfy Democrats, but there are also serious obstacles to passage, not the least of which was his memorable line, "Americans are dreamers, too." He proposed a solution to DACA (that sparked the recent government shutdown), building his promised wall on the southern border and ending both the visa lottery system and so-called chain migration. He reached across the aisle in his speech, terming the four pillars “a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system.” Many in the Democrat party and also the GOP might disagree, seeing the compromises as going too far.
The State of the Union Address witnessed — as did his speech last year — a deliberate effort to be the leader of the United States at a time of intense social and political division and to craft bipartisan consensus to solve our problems and challenges. Will the president succeed?
He faces a hard road of reaching consensus and unity, especially as he laced the speech with assurances of deregulation and ending an overweening government bureaucracy. This approach creates a potentially insuperable political challenge for the president as the Democrat party is firmly committed to what it sees as necessary government regulation and a fierce opposition to tax cuts.
And then there is the gaping political divide exacerbated by an obdurately hostile media — 90% of news coverage has been negative since the inauguration — and an enraged American left that sees any compromise and any deal between Democrats and the White House as quite literally shaking hands with the Devil.
The pressure to oppose Trump at every step will only increase with each passing month as the midterm elections approach. The Democrats in the U.S. Senate under Minority Leader Church Schumer, D-N.Y., paid a steep price with their base after effectively surrendering to the White House and the Republican majority to end the recent government shutdown.
Speaking of the base, there is also the fractured Democrat caucus. Multiple Democrats offered replies or rebuttals to the president, including the official response from Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., one from Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who has openly called for Trump to be impeached, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the Democrats' Spanish-language response from recently elected Virginia Delegate Elizabeth Guzman. All represent the factious components of the party even as they are fully united behind their deep antipathy for the current occupant of the White House.
Will the Senate Democrats consider a deal on immigration, infrastructure and the budget in this toxic atmosphere? Similarly, will the president resort to bruising politics and his now signature Twitter account to wage a social media war on his opponents when negotiations falter?
As the Pew study reveals, he has the political high ground on the growing economy, but there is a long road ahead until the midterms, and Democrats in response to the speech seemed largely undeterred and unconvinced. Rep. Kennedy made that manifest in his rebuttal to the president.
“A government that struggles to keep itself open,” he said. “Russia knee-deep in our democracy. An all-out war on environmental protection. A Justice Department rolling back civil rights by the day. Hatred and supremacy proudly marching in our streets. Bullets tearing through our classrooms, concerts, and congregations. Targeting our safest, sacred places. And that nagging, sinking feeling, no matter your political beliefs: this is not right. This is not who we are.”
How this all plays out will determine whether any lasting progress can be achieved in the coming months and whether there is any even fleeting hope of capturing a real sense of national purpose, let alone working for the common good.