State of the Union messages are platforms from which presidents tout accomplishments and put forth their annual agendas for Congress and the nation.
Particularly in re-election years, presidents draw contrasts with the opposition party and proclaim the state of the union is much better than it was when they took office.
Though the address represents continuity in our constitutional republic, these events have symbolized increased partisanship in our politics.
Delivered before large television audiences, the message is accompanied by dozens of standing ovations from the president’s party and silence or jeers from the party out of power.
Last week’s State of the Union Address, presented by President Donald Trump in front of a bitterly divided Congress, was all that and more.
Not only did Trump succeed in giving the most unusual address in memory, he delivered a political blow that sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party and the anti-Trump resistance.
Oprah Winfrey could hardly have outdone Trump’s surprises of the evening.
Prizes were awarded to a Philadelphia fourth-grader (you get a scholarship!); controversial radio pioneer Rush Limbaugh (you get the Presidential Medal of Freedom!), and the family of a soldier stationed in Afghanistan (you get to see your husband and dad!).
Trump is not the first president to reward political supporters, or the first Republican to recognize conservative icons. But awarding the Medal of Freedom on the spot to the seriously-ill Limbaugh, despite the broadcaster’s racist and misogynist rants, weaponized the award in a way that no president ever has.
The president also used the State of the Union to push conservative crusades.
Trump’s recognition of a mother, who delivered a baby 22 weeks into her pregnancy, boosted the efforts of groups seeking to ban abortions after 20 weeks or even sooner.
Other causes Trump acknowledged included ICE efforts against illegal immigrants, an end to sanctuary cities and states, gun rights, and prayer in public schools.
It wasn’t enough for Trump to list his achievements. He had to embellish them beyond the bounds of reasonable dishonesty.
Not missing the opportunity to declare his administration’s superiority to that of Barack Obama, Trump falsely mentioned that economic, job, and wage growth during his first term was higher than that under Obama.
Furthermore, the president pledged to never jeopardize health insurance benefits, protected by Obamacare, for persons with pre-existing conditions. On the contrary, his administration is attempting to get the courts to strike down the law.
And, Trump pronounced that the U.S. had built 100 miles of the border wall, when in fact all but one mile was replacement of the existing wall.
Probably the last straw for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was Trump’s promise to protect Social Security and Medicare. The president already violated a 2016 promise not to cut Medicaid, and he recently indicated his government may “take a look” at cutting Medicare.
As the world knows, Pelosi tore up the speech when Trump was finished.
No matter the objections to the president’s view of the State of the Union (and whether it will fundamentally change the nature of SOTU addresses in the future), the speech was a political tour de force.
Republicans chanted “Four More Years.”
One of the remarkable things about the State of the Union was Trump’s discipline not to mention impeachment or his Democratic adversaries. This continued the following day, when the U.S. Senate acquitted the president of impeachment charges.
However, on the day after the impeachment vote, a more familiar Donald Trump appeared.
Perpetually aggrieved, the president railed against his “evil” and “corrupt” opponents, including Pelosi for upstaging his triumphal moment, and U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for voting to remove him from office.
There was no sign of contrition from Trump, contrary to Bill Clinton’s apologies after his Senate impeachment trial in 1999.
Trump declared himself vindicated, using a barnyard expression to characterize the charges brought against him. Rather than return to the agenda he set forth in the speech, the president immediately turned to revenge.
Republican senators who voted to acquit Trump hoped that the president had learned a lesson from his impeachment ordeal.
Unfortunately, he has.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly. Readers may follow him on Twitter @McCleleF.