Last Tuesday, tens of millions of Americans turned on their TVs and tuned in to President Trump’s annual State of the Union.
Presidents deliver one of these speeches to a joint session of Congress every year, often lasting for over an hour, and always with high press coverage. So what is so important about this one speech that makes it worth eighty minutes on a Tuesday night to millions of people?
A Little History
Did you know that most of what we now know as the State of the Union (SOTU) is not actually required by the Constitution? It hasn’t always been delivered as a speech; in fact, it began as a written memo to Congress.
The Constitution required that the president give Congress regular updates about the “state of the union,” so that the legislative and executive branches (Congress and the president respectively) could clearly see the challenges the country faces and find common goals to work for. Over the years, though, it became much more than that.
In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson delivered his State of the Union as a speech to the joint session of Congress. Since then, it has become a tradition to deliver a speech. With the advent of new technology, such as television and radio, broadcasts of the State of the Union became popular in America. Suddenly, this small clause in the Constitution was no longer just a channel for communication with Congress; it was a platform to address the entire American people about how the country was moving forward.
President Trump in this year’s State of the Union had a positive outlook on our progress in 2017 and a promising view of 2018.
In his introductory remarks, he said, “A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land.” One recurring theme of the speech was his calls for unity between the different political parties. He advocated for “compromise -- one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.”But what specific reforms does Trump have in mind?
Highlighted this year were issues such as taxes, infrastructure reform, and immigration. He spoke of the tax cuts his administration passed in 2017. On the topic of infrastructure, though, Trump raised an ambitious proposition to improve American cities and communities through government spending. The plan has been controversial, as many economists believe that the $200 billion he plans on spending will not be enough.
The most divisive topic of conversation this year, though, was immigration. President Trump has always taken a hard line on immigration; his administration is not friendly to undocumented immigrants. In light of the recent Democratic protests, he promised a "detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise.” Many Democrats, though, don’t believe this; they think he is advancing his and the Republicans’ agenda while simply claiming to unite down the aisle.
The Democratic Response
Since 1966, after a President's speech, the opposing party chooses a party member to deliver their response. This year, Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts was selected. Based on his response, President Trump’s visions of unity might be farther off than he would like to admit.
Democrats criticized Trump’s handling of healthcare reform, of his new tax plan, of new immigration policies, and of foreign policy. In their eyes, there is not enough in 2017 to be optimistic about, and uniting two parties with such extreme political differences in 2018 will simply not be practical. It appears Democrats and Republicans have very different views about the what state of the union is today and the direction we should be headed.
This is an older video but explains the history and traditions of the SOTU.
Sources: CNN, NYT, Politico, NPR, history.house.gov