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Trump’s First State of the Union
Photo courtesy: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

By James Mejía

In his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump took credit for a growing U.S. economy – new jobs, increased wages, low unemployment and a record high stock market. One week later he was uncharacteristically silent as the stock market had its biggest single day loss in history. On Monday, February 5th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 1,175 points, a drop of 4.6 percent.

During the address, the country witnessed a new tenor from the president. His prepared remarks called for collaboration, “So tonight, I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion, and creed.” 

Any sense of collaboration was short-lived. Six days later, Trump resorted to off-the-cuff comments calling the lack of Democratic response to the State of the Union, “treasonous,” conflating support for him with support for the country. Such remarks appear to further complicate any hope of bipartisan legislation.

Fighting terrorism, increased funding for military and tough talk against dictatorial regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea were a predictably significant part of the presentation. His fleeting call for bipartisan cooperation centered around a compromise immigration bill.

With regard to immigration, Trump said, “In recent months, my Administration has met extensively with both Democrats and Republicans to craft a bipartisan approach to immigration reform. Based on these discussions, we presented the Congress with a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise — one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.” He continued to discuss the four pillars that comprise his plan:

1- “Generously offers a path to citizenship” for 1.8 million DREAMers.

2- “Fully secures the border” to include the building of a wall on the southern border.

3- “Ends the visa lottery” and instead creates a “merit-based” program.

4- “Protects the nuclear family by ending chain migration”. Citizens would only be allowed to sponsor spouses and minor children in lieu of the previous policy whereby more distant relatives can be brought in.

Trump summed up his immigration plan with, “It is time to reform these outdated immigration rules, and finally bring our immigration system into the 21st century,” and “These four pillars represent a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system.”

There was no mention of asking Mexico to pay for the wall along the border.

The State of the Union was broadcast live in English and Spanish on several U.S. networks to over 45 million viewers.

Democratic Response

Since 1966, the opposition party has mounted a response to the official State of the Union. This year’s response was given by Massachusetts Congressman, Joseph Kennedy III, grandson of Democratic icon, Robert Kennedy. Presented to an audience of vocational students and in front of an auto mechanic workshop, the setting supported the gist of the speech – that Trump policies have benefited the wealthy few at the expense of middle class working residents.

Kennedy’s opening remarks were, “Tonight we are here in Fall River, Massachusetts, a proud American city… An American city built by immigrants.” The start to the speech underscored Trump’s divisive immigration policies and the more welcoming Democratic position.

Kennedy referred to “forgotten” and “forsaken” Americans and an economy that makes “stock markets soar… but fails to give workers their fair share.” He referenced the division among groups in the country saying, “This is not who we are.” Kennedy called the Trump administration “callous,” for pitting citizens against each other and continued saying, “Because the greatest, strongest, richest nation in the world shouldn’t have to leave anyone behind.” He addressed DREAMers directly in Spanish then English saying, “You are part of our story, we will fight for you and we will not walk away.”

The choice to have an heir to the Kennedy legacy decry unequal treatment for the underprivileged was curious. In the wake of a lost national election where one criticism was Hillary Clinton’s air of entitlement, a new Kennedy generation launched in the national spotlight may have fallen flat.

In 2004, Democratic New Mexican Governor, Bill Richardson, delivered the first ever State of the Union response in Spanish. Much of President George W. Bush’s presentation focused on the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the need to win the war and move to help Iraq take over its own governance. In addition, Bush asked Congress for immigration reform legislation but emphasized his opposition to amnesty. Richardson’s retort to the Bush platform criticized the Republican stance on immigration and unabashedly encouraged Latinos to vote to change national politics saying, “We are prepared to elect the next President of the United States, and with our growing numbers we can decide the election. In this election, the Hispanic vote will be critical because of our large numbers in states like Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, California, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.”

Four years later, Barack Obama was elected.

State of the Union History

Before the 1920s, it was common for the President of the United States to give a written report on the State of the Union as mandated in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. However, every president since Woodrow Wilson has provided a live update in a joint session of Congress, typically slated for January or February at the invitation of the Speaker of the House. This year’s State of the Union was delivered on January 30th.

During the State of the Union, one cabinet member who is eligible to become president through the Presidential Succession Act is named the ‘designated survivor’ and provided high level security off site and carries with him or her the nuclear codes. This year’s designated survivor was Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture. Several Coloradans have been named the designated survivor – Federico Peña, Secretary of Transportation in 1995 under President Bill Clinton, Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior in 2002 under President George W. Bush, and Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior in 2011 in President Barack Obama’s cabinet.





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