Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address 136 years to the day after the birth of the ablest of his predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roosevelt delivered epic State of the Union addresses that called a nation to overcome a depression and defeat fascism.
Trump delivered a speech that will be forgotten by next week.
Roosevelt’s State of the Union addresses outlined aspirations that inspire us to this day, especially the 1944 speech in which he proposed a “Second Bill of Rights” to guarantee fair wages, health care, education, “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment,” and “freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.”
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made,” Roosevelt told the Congress. “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”
Unfortunately, Trump does not accept these economic truths as self-evident. The entire focus of his administration has been to undo the New Deal, the Fair Deal, and Great Society progress of the past 85 years.
Trump said as much in a State of the Union address that was long on self-congratulation and short on vision. Even Trump’s oft-discussed $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan was discussed anew, but with few new details. It took a savvy senator to speak the truth: “Trump’s infrastructure plan is designed to encourage new #TrumpTolls in order to line pockets on Wall Street,” tweeted Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR). “We need a plan that puts middle class jobs and the needs of our communities ahead of his developer friends.”
Trump said a lot, delivering one of the longest State of the Union addresses in history. But he said little of consequence.
The president’s address was a long and listless repetition of the right-wing themes that have defined his presidency: saber-rattling militarism, rejection of environmental sanity, neglect of domestic needs, and cruel stereotyping of immigrants. Trump’s “nativist lies about immigrants” were reprehensible, and anyone who suggests this speech was “presidential” is lying to themselves. It was heartless and harmful.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III, the earnest Massachusetts Democrat who delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s SOTU, seemed genuinely angry when he rebuked Trump’s speech and Trump’s presidency with the line: “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.”
Kennedy was sincere, and effective—especially when he addressed DACA recipients directly, in both Spanish and English: “And to all the Dreamers out there watching tonight, let me be absolutely clear.… You are part of our story, we will fight for you and we will not walk away”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders also referred to Trump as a bully, saying, “The American people do not want a president who is compulsively dishonest, who is a bully, who actively represents the interests of the billionaire class, who is anti-science, and who is trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin, our nation of origin, our religion, our gender, or our sexual orientation.”
But the bluntest, and best, response came from former Maryland congresswoman Donna Edwards, who opened the Working Families Party’s video response by declaring:
The president who stood before the American people tonight is upending the rule of law, destroying institutions, and engaging in an unprecedented purge of the Department of Justice as Special Counsel Mueller closes in on him—all while congressional Republicans remain silent.
From talk of building walls to travel bans, to devastating cuts to education, tax breaks for the richest among us, undermining voting rights and the rule of law, and attacks on health care, Trump’s policies have hit their mark. And as we heard from his speech tonight, he will continue to demonize the powerless while enriching the most powerful.
Edwards ripped into Trump’s lies and cruelty with appropriate fury. But she also did something else. The candidate for county executive in Maryland’s Prince George’s County spoke of progressives who are running for local, state, and national office in 2018 on platforms that stand in stark contrast to Trump and Trumpism.
“It’s not enough just to be anti-Trump, though that’s important. We have to bring solutions for rooting out income inequality, structural racism and sexism, and repairing our broken democracy—we had all those challenges before Trump and we need leaders willing to tackle our challenges and meet them with foresight and ingenuity,” said Edwards, who told Americans:
That means remaking our government to actually work for the many and not just the few. We need health care for all. We need to end Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and ensure our nation has the means to invest in our infrastructure, education, good-paying jobs and retirement security.
We need to get big money out of politics, by making elections at every level publicly financed, cutting the cord with developers, banks, big pharma, oil and gas companies, and all the interests that control public policy in states, cities, counties, and Congress. We need to make it easier to vote, not harder. Easier to join a union, not harder. Easier to get a good education, not harder or more expensive.
We should stand in the gap to restore the dream of DACA, and make sure police spend more time going after corporate crime than tearing apart immigrant families. We must transform the criminal-justice system so it serves to keep all communities safe, invest in accountable partnerships between law enforcement and communities, legalize or at a minimum decriminalize marijuana, end the mass-incarceration policies that put more people behind bars than any other nation in the world, and ruin millions of lives in the process, and invest in drug treatment, education, and jobs. We must refuse to leave our fellow Americans behind—half a million Americans are still without electricity in Puerto Rico and still desperately need aid. We must take seriously the threat of climate change and make a plan at every level of government to transition to a clean-energy economy by 2050 that will keep our air and our water clean and our planet alive.
There was nothing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Trump’s State of the Union remarks.
But there was an echo of FDR Tuesday night in Edwards, who declared: “We’re going to shake off Trump’s dark shadow, and we’re going to fight for a real democracy that puts the people first—a democracy rooted in solidarity and justice.”