What is the State of Our Union?

The State of the Union was, at one point in history, simply a letter from the President to Congress outlining the administration’s progress in the preceding twelve months and its plans for the months ahead. In the Constitution, it is defined in Article II, Section 3 as the requirement of the President to “recommend to [Congress] such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” In recent years the State of the Union has become quite a show of pride, given by presidents with the intent of showing off their legislative accomplishments, their foreign policy victories, and their support among members of Congress who clap wildly. We watch as presidents address audience members who have been through tragedies or have acted as heroes. Given that Donald Trump seems incapable of acting in a presidential manner at all times, the bar was at an all-time-low for his first State of the Union speech; all he had to do was read from the script and pundits across the board would herald the moment as, finally, presidential.

Last night, we were forced to sit through Trump listing off his ‘major’ accomplishments. He mentioned the “strangers shielding strangers” from rapid gunfire on the Las Vegas strip, but made no comment about how he would work with Congress to protect further Americans from being shot as they go about their daily lives. Instead, he praised his administration’s defense of the 2nd Amendment. Trump boasted about how employment among African-Americans has reached its lowest level ever, but failed to apologize for calling black athletes "sons of bitches" as they rallied against institutional racism (not to mention the fact that the low unemployment rate is a result of past administrations’ efforts, not his). He used families of murder victims at the hands of gang violence to tout his anti-immigrant message, failing to address the thousands of people killed in our country by American citizens in incidents like Sandy Hook and Charleston. He lied blatantly about ‘chain migration,’ stating that one legalized citizen could bring in “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” when the reality is that the current law only allows sponsorship of spouses, children, parents, and siblings, better known as family reunification.

Donald Trump is not a normal president. Sometimes I wonder if he is really president at all; we talk about him all the time, but while watching the State of the Union last night it dawned on me that I haven’t truly accepted the reality of what is happening. I knew that Trump, like any other person occupying the Oval Office, would stand before Congress and read a speech from a teleprompter. The first State of the Union I remember was in 2002, when President Bush addressed Congress for the first time after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I sat on the living room floor in front of the TV and watched as the president was interrupted by applause hundreds of times during his speech, in which he spoke about the War on Terror, the heroes at Ground Zero, and the ways in which each American citizen was affected by the attacks. He brought war widows into the chamber and addressed their plights but it didn’t feel cheap; he addressed the huge cost of the wars we were fighting but managed to make a good case for why they were necessary, even if I no longer agree with his case now.

Even as a ten-year-old I felt President Bush’s passion was genuine, and reading through the transcript as I write this reminds me of what the State of the Union has the potential to be. Full of hope, pride, determination – all presidents have accomplished this in their addresses. President Obama acknowledged his legislative success in the Affordable Care Act, which to this day ensures that more Americans than ever have health insurance. Donald Trump, by comparison, has no such legislative accomplishments about which to boast. He spoke proudly about major tax cuts, but later spoke of our country’s broken infrastructure, asking Congress to produce a bill for $1.5 trillion to go towards repairing our roads, highways, waterways, bridges, and airports. Where will this money come from, if not taxes? How will the money be spent by Republicans who hate government spending? Does Trump know that Michigan alone still needs about $3.3 billion to fund its transportation projects?

There have been glimmers of hope for the months to come, from the Women’s March to the victory of Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race. So even as my faith in America is lower than low, I want to say with confidence that we are better than a cringe-worthy USA chant in the Chamber. We can elect leaders who give us more than one legislative success in a year. In 2018, we have to come out in numbers in support of worthy, intelligent, hard-working candidates who can do better than reading without emotion from a teleprompter. Trump’s State of the Union was exactly what we knew it would be – lackluster, full of lies, and a bad representation of what America is. We must go forward carrying the hope of what America has the potential to be, and we must turn that potential into reality.