Even by the wet-cardboard standards of this presidency, expectations for Donald Trumps’ first State of the Union speech were incredibly low. As a Politico headline put it: “He has to be normal.” And that was about it. No swearing. No porn stars. No Russians. Just read from the teleprompter without threatening the FBI.
The White House made its own efforts to reduce expectations. The day before they let it be known it would not include any new policies or initiatives. Given that even Republicans concede there have been very few substantive accomplishments in Trump’s first year, some were left wondering what he would find to talk about.
The president did stick to a script, and it was a well-written one, too. It began on the economy, touched on trade, and immigration, and crime. In this way, it was similar to his inaugural address, what is often referred to as the “American Carnage” speech, mixing both fears (ISIS, Latino gangs, illegal immigrants) and hopes (growth, jobs, infrastructure). Almost every sentence was an applause line, such as, “Together we are building a safe, strong and proud America”. Or, “This is our New American Moment—there has never been a better time to start living the American Dream.”
Unfortunately, according to an increasingly large pile of data, the best place to live the American Dream is no longer in the United States. Many OECD countries, led by Canada, now outpace the U.S. on employment numbers, homeownership, graduation rates and more. The state of the Union is not strong.
READ MORE: The American Dream has moved to Canada
As the president noted early in his address, the stock market and job numbers have never been higher. However, growth rates for both are decelerating and were slower last year than during the previous six years. Income disparity, however, is increasing. The president’s tax cuts, which mostly benefited the wealthiest, will only accelerate this growing gap between the rich and poor.
And it’s America’s lower income citizens, many having voted for Trump in hopes he would disrupt a system that has chewed them up, who are doing the worst. An unprecedented opioid crisis is running out of control, and contributing to falling life expectancy. This is a fact that is not getting nearly enough attention—not only does American life expectancy lag behind other wealthy nations, it is actually going backward. This is a phenomenon usually only seen in countries wracked by war or disease. In the United States, it because of obesity rates and a lack of health insurance. And, due to Trump’s efforts to attack Obamacare, by the end of 2017 there were three million more uninsured.
One of the most notable changes to the United States since Trump took office has been its position in the world. The president recently cancelled his already delayed trip to the United Kingdom. It was widely assumed this was because of the expected public protests. But even the official reception would have been icy. Washington now finds itself aligned against traditional allies like London on issues such as North Korea, NATO, the United Nations, trade, cyber security and more.
But the most remarkable change in the last year has been the presidency itself. Trump has become the first part-time president. He spent almost one third of his year golfing or at a Trump resort. And, when he is in Washington, he notoriously will not read any of his briefing notes, and only goes into the Oval Office after 11 a.m. It has been reported his staff have welcomed what they are calling his “Executive Time”, as it allows them to get on with the business of governing without Trump disrupting things.
Instead, the president watches Fox News and tweets from bed (as he recently explained in an interview). Many feared that Trump’s election heralded the arrival of an authoritarian reign that would govern from on high, issuing decrees and diktats. Instead, we got a president who merely snipes from the sidelines, picking fights with foreign leaders, football players and even his own party.
And that is what his first State of the Union speech was. There were no sweeping new initiatives, no policy plans, no strategic roadmap for making America great again. Instead, Trump read out a series of tweets. Some were jingoistic, others uplifting, and a few were threatening. He did not rant or swear. He was normal. And, in this new American moment, that has to count for something.
MORE ABOUT DONALD TRUMP:
- Brian Mulroney: Anyone expressing fear and anger over NAFTA is ‘uninformed’
- If Trump kills NAFTA, it could hit America’s Rust Belt hard
- Melania Trump’s lonely one-woman resistance
- Donald Trump is making America more expensive for consumers
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.