Six Takeaways from Trump's SOTU Address & the Democratic Response

Jan 31, 2018

President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, a little more than a year after he took office.  The President sought to give himself and his Administration credit for the improving US economy, and the tax overhaul passed in the last year.

The President also laid out his plan for the year ahead, seeking to tie a resolution to the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to increased border security, and calling for a comprehensive infrastructure plan. 

>> NPR Annotates President Trump's Address

Representative Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts delivered the Democratic response, and painted a different picture of the state of the economy and who wins and loses from the Republican-passed tax overhaul.

>> The Democratic Response, Annotated By NPR

Carroll University political science and global studies professor Lilly Goren found several key aspects of both speeches worth thinking about:

The conciliatory tone. The sound of President Trump's rhetoric differed significantly from the tone of his stump speeches and how he presents himself on Twitter. "Part of what you saw [Tuesday] night is that he's pitching a speech to the people in the audience immediately in front of him in Congress.  And there was a call to bipartisanship with regard to Democrats and Republicans who were sitting in front of him."

The tone, part two.  For a president whose base likes his unpredictable approach to policy, the speech was similar in style to addresses given by previous presidents.  "It was a fairly conventional State of the Union Address - a conventional speech given by an unconventional type of president."

SOTU sets the tone for a mid-term election year.  There were plenty of issues about which Trump spoke, which may emerge as sticking points for incumbents seeking reelection, from the future of DACA to family leave and infrastructure spending.  Goren says it could add up to a lot of work in a very short amount of time.  "To some degree, in an election year, you have a really condensed window to do some of that kind of work - because Republicans and Democrats are going to be positioning themselves for the midterms, and they're not necessarily going to want to spend all that much time making a lot of deals."

What wasn't in the speech.  Goren notes that President Trump raised several issues, like family leave, just briefly and without any specifics.  He went into others, like infrastructure spending, at greater length, but without fully explaining how they would be funded.  She also points to a topic briefly mentioned but with little detail.  "One of the concerning points in the speech was a comment with regard to giving cabinet secretaries the power essentially fire people who are in the civil service, which would be a really dramatic change with regard to how the civil service works, and it would potentially change the executive branch in general."

The length of the speech.  For someone who speaks a lot - and briefly - through Twitter, President Trump's speech went late into the evening.  "It was a long speech in delivery, although not as long a speech in words.  I think the count was about 5,600 words, and it came in as the second- or third-longest speech that has been timed, behind Bill Clinton, who always was long but [whose speeches] were 9,000 and 10,000 words."

Who delivered the Democratic response, and where it was delivered.  The Democratic response was much shorter - about 12 minutes - and in contrast to some recent Republican response speeches during the Obama presidency, it was given on location, in front of an audience.  Plus, Goren says, it was given by a politician who may not, himself, be well-known nationally, but whose name is - Rep. Joseph Kennedy III of Massachusetts.  "He's young," Goren laughs, "and he's a Kennedy, so to some degree, there's a brand name association with it."  Goren says the Democrats did well not to try to recreate the grandeur of a president speaking in the formal setting of the Capitol.  "He's from a more mechanized and industrial area of Massachusetts - and so there was a symbolic nature of the situation where he's framed in an auto shop at a technical college with an audience."