Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was framed by two political missteps, one small and one that unnecessarily further debases our already fractured political discourse. It began with a missed handshake between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and ended with Pelosi’s ripping up the president’s speech as he finished his remarks to Congress.
Along with the starkly partisan reactions to Trump’s speech, these gestures exemplified the divide between Democrats and Republicans in America today. That divide will likely grow wider after the Republican-controlled Senate votes on Wednesday to acquit Trump of the impeachment charges leveled by the U.S. House.
Pelosi’s ill-advised and disrespectful move was a new low in our already distressingly divided political discourse. Sinking to Trump’s level of theatrics over substance and considering insults as a sign of strength demeaned the speaker and Democrats.
Worse, it threatens to overshadow the Orwellian reality-bending claims that were the centerpiece of the president’s speech, claims that will likely be a mainstay of Trump’s case for re-election in November.
Beyond the masterful stagecraft — reuniting a military family, promoting the last surviving Tuskegee airman to general and offering a scholarship to a fourth-grader — Trump’s speech was the usual self-congratulatory list of platitudes and praise that has come to characterize these annual presidential addresses. Trump’s remarks, however, were built on a foundation of exaggerations and, at times, outright falsehoods.
“Three years ago, we launched the great American comeback,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. “Tonight, I stand before you to share the incredible results. Jobs are booming, incomes are soaring, poverty is plummeting, crime is falling, confidence is surging, and our country is thriving and highly respected again.”
It is unclear what American is coming back from. Trump’s claim that “years of economic decay are over” is misplaced. While it is true that the American economy has grown during Trump’s three years in office, that growth did not begin with his inauguration in 2017. He inherited a strong and growing economy from President Barack Obama. It was Obama who took over the Oval Office, at the end of the recession, when the number of jobs in America was declining and wages had stagnated.
As of January 2017, the U.S. had experienced 75 months of job growth, the longest on record. Trump has continued that trend. That’s great for America. But Trump refuses to tell the whole story.
Likewise, unemployment has decreased under Trump, but that rate of decline is much slower than it was during Obama’s tenure. This is also true of the unemployment rate for African Americans, Hispanic Americans and American women.
The president’s misrepresentations were not limited to the economy, which was a focal point of his more than hour-long speech.
Regarding health care, which Americans have identified as their most pressing concern heading into this year’s election, the president said: “I’ve also made an ironclad pledge to American families: We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions. And we will always protect your Medicare and we will always protect your Social Security. Always.” He did not elaborate.
It was the Affordable Care Act, passed under Obama, that prevented insurers from denying coverage to or charging high premiums to Americans with pre-existing health care conditions, such as diabetes, cancer and asthma.
The president has backed Republican efforts to replace the ACA with plans that would weaken patient protections, including for those Americans with pre-existing conditions. The administration has also backed the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that could upend the ACA and its patient protections.
The president’s budget for 2020 includes cuts in funding for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and he’s said he’s open to changes in these entitlement programs.
As expected, the president made no reference to his impeachment by the U.S. House and the Senate trial that is set to end in his acquittal this week. He did not address the admonitions from fellow Republicans for his misdeeds and misjudgments.
Instead, he spoke of America’s successes (his lofty rhetoric about the settlement of America overlooked the indigenous people who were here long before the pilgrims and pioneers arrived) and the promises yet to come. They were inspiring words, but mismatched to the task of bridging the divisions that both he and Democratic leaders seem intent on deepening rather than healing.