Donald Trump's first State of the Union address was subdued, coherent, if sometimes dull, marked by platitudes and dog whistles, and frequently fact-challenged.
The president spent 90 minutes Tuesday night talking about American unity and touting his administration's purported accomplishments, including job growth and tax cuts, while promising to reform immigration, rebuild infrastructure, and more.
"We have gone forward with a clear vision and a righteous mission -- to make America great again for all Americans," he said early in the speech to a joint session of Congress.
"The state of our union is strong because our people are strong," he continued. "And together we are building a safe, strong, and proud America."
He pointed to the creation of 2.4 million jobs since his election, although, as National Public Radio noted in a fact check of his speech, there were actually more jobs, 2.7 million, created in the prvious 14-month period. This slowdown is unsurprising, though, "since the economy is nearing full employment," NPR reported. The network found his statements about record low black unemployment and near-record low Latino unemployment to be accurate, but added that those rates been declining since for years, just as the increase in manufacturing jobs, something else Trump touted, has been going on for several years. And no president can take complete credit or blame for changes in the job market.
He also promoted the tax cuts he recently signed into law, saying they will be of great help to ordinary Americans. He said the average family income will rise by $4,000 a year, something that has been contested by economists. The tax reforms stand to produce the greatest benefit to people with the highest income levels.
Trump boasted of eliminating regulations on business. "In our drive to make Washington accountable, we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history of our country," he said. However, much of that has come at the expense of environmental protection.
On energy, he said, "We have ended the war on American energy. And we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal." But as NPR noted, domestic oil and natural gas production were hardly suppressed during President Barack Obama's administration; both industries saw a boom. He said the U.S. has finally become an exporter of energy, but that's actually been the case for years, according to The Washington Post, which also fact-checked his speech. Moreover, "there's no such thing as 'clean coal,'" the Post reported; in ending the "war" on coal, Trump was likely referring to the repeal of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which recommended the use of fuels other than coal.
It went on like that. Some of his statements that sounded hard to argue with turned out, on deeper examination, to raise questions. Trump called for fixing American roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, a project that has bipartisan support, but there's no plan to fund this, the Post reported. He did endorse a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought here as children, but he wants to have that border wall built. He blamed "chain migration," the sponsorship of extended family members for immigration to the U.S., for bringing terrorists into the country, but the accused attackers in question appear to have been radicalized after they came to America. He evoked sympathy for people who had lost family members at the hands of undocumented immigrants, with the parents of victims in attendance, but ignored the data that indicates immigrants, documented or not, commit fewer crimes than the native-born.
Also in the audience were many other people who've unquestionably served or suffered heroically -- members of the military, police and firefighters, and a man who endured torture in North Korea. Trump singled them out for recognition, and called, as expected, for further pressure on the North Korean regime and an increase in America's nuclear arsenal.
There were, of course, the expected dog whistles on some issues -- talk of standing for the national anthem, defending the Second Amendment, and protecting "religious liberty." And Trump highlighted the appointment of "judges who will interpret the Constitution as written," including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Many of Trump's judicial picks are deeply hostile to LGBT rights, women's rights, and minority rights.
In the Democratic response to Trump's address, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts accused the president of setting some Americans against others. Trump is leading "an administration that callously appraises our worthiness and decides who makes the cut and who can be bargained away," said Kennedy, who touched on some issues Trump wouldn't go near.
"We are bombarded with one false choice after another," he continued. "Coal miners or single moms. Rural communities or inner cities. The coast or the heartland. As if the mechanic in Pittsburgh and the teacher in Tulsa and the day care worker in Birmingham are somehow bitter rivals, rather than mutual casualties of a system forcefully rigged for those at the top. As if the parent who lies awake terrified that their transgender son will be beaten and bullied at school is any more or less legitimate than the parent whose heart is shattered by a daughter in the grips of opioid addiction.
"So here is the answer Democrats offer tonight: we choose both. We fight for both. Because the strongest, richest, greatest nation in the world shouldn't leave any one behind."
In addition to talking about transgender kids, Kennedy gave shout-outs to activists against sexual assault and racism. "You bravely say me too," he said. "You steadfastly say that Black Lives Matter." And speaking first in Spanish, then in English, he told the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants brought here as children, "You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away."
Late in the speech, in a statement that seemed pointedly aimed at Trump, he said, "Bullies may land a punch. They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future."
LGBT and other progressive activists seemed distinctly underwhelmed by Trump's address. "Managing to read a pre-written speech off a teleprompter does not make one presidential or lend a single ounce of legitimacy to Trump's anti-LGBTQ agenda," said a statement released by Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD. "Trump has spent the past year targeting vulnerable communities and surrounding himself with anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women, and anti-LGBTQ activists with the goal of exacerbating discrimination and erasing LGBTQ Americans from the fabric of this nation."
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, didn't think much of Trump's talk of religious liberty. "Trump clearly doesn't know what the words 'religious liberty' mean if he thinks he's taken historic action to protect it," Moline said in a prepared statement. "His actions in his first year as president have in fact significantly undermined the rights of people of faith whose beliefs don't align with the president's allies in the religious right."
And Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued this statement: "TelePrompter Trump may have delivered a coherent speech before a live studio audience, but the behind-the-scenes footage reveals his administration's hostility toward civil and human rights. He touts the notion of one united American family, but his actions paint a different reality. Trump actively seeks to disadvantage, divide, and discriminate against women, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, those aspiring to join the middle class, and so many more." She added that Trump does not have "a serious plan" for infrastructure and denounced Congress for "rubber-stamping" his judicial nominees. "If the president wants the state of our union to truly be strong, then he must stop stoking hate and sowing division among us," she added.