California congresswoman Maxine Waters minced no words when she flatly declared that she will not attend Trump’s State of the Union Address on January 30. She made it plain why, “He’s a liar.” A handful of other Democrats have predictably jumped on the boycott Trump bandwagon and won’t be present that evening. More should and almost certainly will join them in staying home that night.
This is not a case of fierce partisan politics at work. It’s not about listening to Trump discourse on his real and imagined accomplishments in his first year in office. It’s would be a painful sit and listen to his disjointed narcissistic, ego obsessed litany of personal boast and brags. This is the exact antithesis of what a State of the Union Address is supposed to be about. Trump gave a tip-off on this nearly a year ago when he gave a kind of, sort State of the Union address, though technically not a State address, had all the earmarks of one with a glaring exception. It was about him and not the nation.
This was hardly a surprise. Trump’s presidency is the most unorthodox, unconventional and precedent shattering of any administration. So, the wonder is he didn’t take it all the way and simply tweet his address. However, Trump, as all first term presidents know, will be watched again by the biggest audience any politician could ever hope to have watch and listen to them.
Presidents take full advantage of the moment. A State of the Union address can boost the stature, prestige and power of their presidency. It can even bump up a president’s approval rating by a point or two.
Presidents also know that the opposition’s response to their speech is feeble, pale and little watched or counted by Americans. In some cases, the opposition response can even backfire. This happens when the rebuttal comes across as a mean-spirited, partisan, petty rant against the president. The GOP got deservedly plastered with that charge in just about every rebuttal it gave to Obama’s State Addresses.
Trump really doesn’t need the State of the Union address for a bump up in his popularity rating. He’s smashed the record for having the lowest rating of any first term president. It would take more than one speech to change that. Besides, popularity ratings haven’t meant much to him anyway, since the only rating that seems to matter is that of his base. As long as most them like him, and they do, he’s in good shape.
If he stays on script, the odds are that his address won’t do what these addresses are supposed to do. That is to fine-tune the administration’s policy, draw a roadmap for the nation of where the administration is going, and add luster to the president’s image.
Other Presidents have done that. President James Monroe announced the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln flatly called for the end of slavery in the rebellious states. This was the prelude to the Emancipation Proclamation he issued a year later. Woodrow Wilson warned of the dangers of impending war in 1913. Franklin Roosevelt outlined the famed Four Freedoms in 1941. Lyndon Johnson unveiled the outlines of his Great Society program to fight poverty in 1965. Bill Clinton unveiled his health care reform plan in 1993. George Bush, in his State of the Union speeches in 2002 and 2003, prepped the nation for the Iraq invasion. Presidents quickly latched onto the media to give their State of the Union speech more exposure and political wallop. Calvin Coolidge gave the first radio broadcast in 1923. Truman gave the first televised broadcast in 1947.
These were all conventional presidents and politicians who played within the system’s ground rules, respected the traditions of office and gave a nod to bi-partisan country, not party, let alone ego and self, first in their addresses. None of that applies to Trump.
He’s shameless played the race card, double dealt with both the Democrats and his own GOP leadership on everything from the budget talk to immigration to the Affordable Care Act assault. When he gets to his signature campaign issues of job creation, health care and tax reform, don’t expect much in the way of details. He’ll just fill up the teleprompter with his stock rhetorical fluff about bringing jobs back to America, and blustering that his tax giveaway to the rich and corporations is really a big paycheck boost to the working and middle classes.
There’s also not a lot he can really say about foreign policy other than make the false claim that he got rid of ISIS and reining in China on trade and currency. He’ll conveniently and absent-mindedly say nothing about any tensions or rivalries with Russia and Putin.
He’ll take the use of the pronoun “I” to new records in referencing the supposed pluses of his presidency. Waters is right to stay home; she and we have heard it all before from him. This State of the Union address won’t be any different.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is he author of the forthcoming 50 Years Later: Why the Murder of Dr. King Still Hurts (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.