President Donald Trump aimed to strike a conciliatory tone and one of bipartisanship while touting his Administration’s accomplishments in his second State of the Union address before a diverse Congress.
But a number of African American lawmakers, Democrats and progressives said Tuesday night’s speech was filled with contradictions. It lacked accountability, many pointed out, for decisions by the White House that have had an adverse impact on countless Americans, including the longest government shutdown in history.
“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people,” said Trump, whose speech had been delayed for a week due to the federal shutdown. “There is a new opportunity in American politics if only we have the courage to seize it. Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.”
The president talked about domestic and foreign policy issues, ranging from the country’s newfound relationship with North Korea and removing troops in Syria and Afghanistan, to averting an arms race with Russia and trade with China. He spoke of investing in America’s crumbling infrastructure, and ending HIV/AIDS by 2030. He also noted the historic number of women serving in Congress.
Touting “an unprecedented economic boom” Trump said his Administration has created 5.3 million new jobs–some 600,000 of them in manufacturing.
“Unemployment has reached the lowest rate in half a century,” Trump said. “African American, Hispanic American and Asian American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded. …More people are working now than at any time in our history—157 million.”
But according to fact checkers at CNN, the boom isn’t necessarily because of his work. “He inherited a labor market in the later stages of a long recovery from the Great Recession, with fairly consistent job creation. Growth in monthly payrolls reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics averaged 217,000 jobs under President Barack Obama’s second term, and under Trump it has averaged 203,000, pushing the overall unemployment rate to the lowest level since 1969 and unprecedented levels for people of color. The economy has added 4.87 million jobs since Trump took office, not 5.3 million, the number he cited,” CNN stated.
The president also spoke of the nation’s criminal justice system and legislation such as the First Step Act—a bipartisan measure which gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society. Trump signed the bill late last year.
In discussing the issue of criminal justice reform, the president personalized it by citing two individuals—both Black–who have been incarcerated.
“Last year, I heard through friends the story of Alice Johnson. I was deeply moved,” he said. “In 1997, Alice was sentenced to life in prison as a first-time non-violent drug offender,” he said. “Over the next two decades, she became a prison minister, inspiring others to choose a better path… Alice’s story underscores the disparities and unfairness that can exist in criminal sentencing – and the need to remedy this injustice.”
Johnson served 22 years in prison, and Trump commuted her sentence back in June.
“When I saw Alice’s beautiful family greet her at the prison gates, hugging and kissing and crying and laughing, I knew I did the right thing.”
Johnson, who was in the audience seated near First Lady Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump and other members of the president’s family, wiped away tears as members of both parties stood and applauded her. During the speech, Trump also honored military veterans, Holocaust survivors, families who have been victims of crime, a child with cancer and others.
Trump spent a significant portion of the speech making his case for a controversial border wall. “This is a moral issue,” said Trump. “The lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well being of all Americans.”
“Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country but they have to come in legally.”
As Trump spoke, Republicans frequently cheered while most Democrats sat stoically. Democratic women were dressed in white to honor suffrage, while many African American lawmakers wore kente cloth accents.
Afterward, some lawmakers said the president’s attempts at political reconciliation rang hollow because it does not jibe with how he has conducted himself over the last two years in office.
The Congressional Black Caucus Chair, Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) wasn’t impressed.
“Within the first few minutes of his speech, the President touted getting families off of food stamps. He stood there just months after pushing an agenda to eliminate SNAP for families across America,” Bass told ESSENCE in a statement.
“He mentioned many anniversaries but failed to mention that it’s the 400th anniversary of our ancestors arriving to this country enslaved. He said he was a defender of health coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, but it was less than two years ago when he pushed to repeal the very law that protects people with those conditions,” she said. “He brandished unemployment rates as if he had anything to do with them and governmental stability as if he didn’t just cause the longest shutdown in the history of this country. This isn’t to say the entire speech was a loss. He was right about deserving credit for having so many women walking the halls of Congress. I’m just not too sure he understands what those women are here to do,” she continued.
Stacey Abrams, the recent Democratic candidate for Governor of Georgia, helped give the official Democratic response. She spoke of racism, which was not mentioned in Trump’s speech despite a rise in hate crimes.
“We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, yet we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present – which is why we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds – and call racism what it is. Wrong,” said Abrams.
She went on to say that “ even as I am very disappointed by the President’s approach to our problems – I still don’t want him to fail. But we need him to tell the truth, and to respect his duties and the extraordinary diversity that defines America. Our progress has always found refuge in the basic instinct of the American experiment – to do right by our people. And with a renewed commitment to social and economic justice, we will create a stronger America, together,” she said.
In a statement, the NAACP called President Trump’s address “political theater at its best. In an attempt to reset the nation and Congress after two years of bitter partisanship and deeply personal attacks, that Trump himself initiated, it is evident that his address was nothing but a hollow call for unity.”
Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL) characterized the speech as the “good, bad and ugly.”
While Kelly appreciated his criminal justice reform message, she characterized what Trump said about opioids, drugs, and addiction, as “half hearted.”
“Since the campaign, President Trump has talked a good game on the growing opioid crisis. However, he has made no progress and instead, put this on the back burner,” said Kelly. “The bills passed by the Republican-controlled 115th Congress provide none of the necessary funding or increased access to care to address this crisis. It’s time to stop re-reading talking points and get serious about the opioid crisis.”
Top ranking Democrats—among them Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD)—also indicated they found the speech lacking. And some Democrats, among them Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and John Lewis (D-GA), skipped the event.
Mandela Barnes, the Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, delivered the Working Families Party response to the State of the Union.
Barnes said “we need a government that works for the many. But what we have is Trump, and an administration run by and for a small handful of billionaires and insiders that don’t seem to care about the rest of us.”
“This is an administration that has literally thrown children in cages and separated families. They shut down the government, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay, forcing working people to resort to food banks, shutting down key services — we witnessed a tantrum because they wanted a border wall. And we got a shutdown that cost $3 billion. All because Trump can’t tell the difference between the perpetrators of violence and the victims fleeing to our nation seeking safety. And Trump may shut down the government to demand a Wall yet again. As he lurches from crisis to crisis, he is getting desperate.”
Trump said he wanted Americans to “choose greatness.”
“Together we can break decades of political stalemate. We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions, forge new solutions and unlock the extraordinary promise of America’s future. The decision is ours to make.”
Kelly said the decision, of course, is also that of the Commander in Chief.
“As with all things concerning President Trump, the question isn’t ‘what he said,’ rather ‘is that what he’s going to do?’ We’ll have to wait and see.”