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State of the Union: 'Trump didn’t go off script. He was measured and sought to be conciliatory'

Last night’s speech showed the serious challenges confronting Republicans and Democrats as they prepare for mid-term elections, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

PERHAPS THE MOST striking aspect of last night’s State of the Union address from Donald Trump was its tone. The president didn’t go off script; he was measured in his delivery and he sought to be conciliatory.

At certain moments, he must have seemed nearly unrecognisable to his political friends and foes alike.

Trump’s three points

Substantively, there were three primary points President Trump tried to make. First, with no small amount of oratorical pats on the back, he stressed that – critics be damned – he has achieved a tremendous amount in his first year in the White House.

Second, his domestic priorities over the next twelve months will be getting tough on immigration, renegotiating existing trade agreements and recalibrating American policy in this realm generally and rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

Third, in the foreign policy arena, he will continue to play hardball and “will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position”.

2018 domestic agenda

With respect to his accomplishments to date, which fact-checkers have since rebutted or contextualised, the president referenced a number of very positive economic figures, the comprehensive tax reform legislation recently enacted and his nominees to the United States Supreme Court and other posts in the federal judiciary who have taken their seats on the bench.

These are music to the ears not only of conventional conservative Republicans, but to vast swathes of the citizenry. His 2018 domestic agenda items, however, are more complicated in myriad ways and might prove the political tests of the Trump presidency.

Democrats, and some Republicans on the economic, laissez-faire right, implacably oppose the notion of a wall and other strict initiatives targeting people from countries to America’s south.

Winning over congressional majorities to his new, purportedly centrist proposal – allowing for so-called “dreamers” who came to the US illegally as children to remain, while releasing twenty-five billion dollars to enhance border security, as well as ending the diversity visa lottery and limiting family-based immigration – will be an uphill battle. In addition, his plans on trade and infrastructure are more likely to attract support from Democrats than from within the GOP.

What ultimately made Trump the best placed candidate in a 17-strong primary field in 2016 was his “America First” stance on these and other issues. Hillary Clinton lost the backing of millions of disaffected Democrats who are disgusted by what they perceive to be their party’s abandonment of blue collar workers and simultaneous embrace of “identity politics” and the not unrelated whims of well-heeled contributors in San Francisco and Manhattan.

Will Democrats work with the president?

If Trump were to move affirmatively on trade and infrastructure, he would endear himself to struggling Americans, yet a solid majority of congressional Republicans would oppose any attempts to curtail global free trade or to spend as much as a trillion dollars on building projects.

It is also an open question as to whether Democrats could work with the president on these matters, even if they are sympathetic on the merits, because of the widespread antipathy towards Donald Trump on the left.

Realising his objectives in this regard will necessitate a high wire balancing act from someone whose dealmaker persona is undercut by his political inexperience.

Lastly, the hawkish language employed by President Trump when outlining his administration’s approach to North Korea and global terrorism will resonate with those on the interventionist wing of his party and may appeal to an innate sense of patriotism in the US.

At the same time, though, it will mobilise liberal opposition and frighten military families in Middle America who have disproportionately suffered the ravages of futile armed conflicts and were drawn to candidate Trump’s rhetoric promising no more unnecessary wars.

The Kennedy clan’s new face

Just after the State of the Union speech concluded, 37-year-old US Congressman Joe Kennedy – the new face of the storied Irish American clan – gave the official response from the Democrats.

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His address, delivered in a vocational school with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing in a working class city in Massachusetts, offered a withering critique of the president (without once mentioning him by name) and a robust defence of his party’s core values.

In short, Congressman Kennedy argued that, while his party is proud of its outreach to and advocacy on behalf of women, minorities, marginalised groups and others, it remains the party that fights for (white) men and women who work with their hands and live pay cheque to pay cheque.

Whether the Democrats can stretch their tent far enough to fit all of these Americans – especially when so much of the white working class has either fled or is clinging by a thread and when some indicators suggest that Hispanic Americans may prove more akin to Irish Americans than African Americans in their party affiliation – is the crucial test for them now.

Something significant about last night’s speechifying

In the run-up, there were attacks from all quarters on the invariably platitudinous State of the Union address and the similarly choreographed responses. The critics have a point.

But there was something significant about last night’s speechifying. It clarified the very serious challenges confronting both parties as they prepare for mid-term elections in a time of political uncertainty defined by an unprecedented president and the overarching mood of the American people that engendered his rise.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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