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A Tale of Many Trumps: Divided State of the Union

US President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union (SOTU) speech to both houses of Congress last week. Last year after his inauguration, he had already addressed Congress, but that was not quite official. The annual SOTU address is the keynote speech by the President to Congress in which he sets out his agenda for the next year, highlights his accomplishments to the American people, and shapes his political message to the country and the world. It is required by the US Constitution that the president “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Two of the most memorable SOTU messages came in the 19th Century. In 1823 President James Monroe enunciated the “Monroe Doctrine”, which called for the European powers to cease interfering in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, and endorsed the movement for independence by South American nations from Spain. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln expressed his desire for the Civil War to lead to the emancipation of the slaves, which was later realized in his ‘Emancipation Proclamation’, which freed the slaves in the Southern Confederate states in revolt from the Union.
Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the SOTU has become one of the major media events of the US political calendar, a closely watched event that is accompanied by a rebuttal speech from the opposition. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the First World War, was the first president since John Adams to address Congress directly in 1913 urging reform of high US tariff barriers. As the power of the residency has increased in the last century, the importance of the SOTU speech has grown correspondingly. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in 1933, was a master of the radio address. His “Four Freedoms” SOTU speech in 1941 outlined the fundamental rights that Americans would soon be fighting for as the US edged towards joining the Second World War.
In 2002 and 2003, President George W. Bush used his SOTU address to argue the moral case for war against Iraq, labeling the regime part of the “Axis of Evil” that threatened world peace. In his last SOTU in 2008, he was quite prophetic: “At kitchen tables across our country, there is concern about our economic future” – months before the credit crunch became a full financial meltdown. The following year, in his first address to Congress, Democratic President Barack Obama spoke to a nation in the midst of economic crisis: “I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States will emerge stronger than before.”
Donald Trump came to office promising to change the face of American politics and transfer power “back to the people”. In an upbeat message a world away from his apocalyptic “American carnage” inaugural speech of just a year ago, Trump said his administration was “building a safe, strong and proud America”. A bullish Trump proclaimed a “new American moment”: “There has never been a better time to start living the American dream”. Nearly 46 million television viewers tuned in as he implored the nation to come together as “one team, one people and one American family” and furthermore: “Tonight I am extending an open hand to work with members of both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to protect our citizens, of every background, colour and creed.” Trump was showing off his better side — the conciliatory ‘Teleprompter Trump’. Very fine words indeed, but a stark departure from his actual words and deeds the previous year. Trump had indeed transformed America, but for the worse.
The president made a plea for the kind of bipartisan co-operation that has been in short supply during a turbulent first year in office. He has enraged Democrats by his extreme immigration policies, among others by withdrawing protections for immigrants who entered the US with their parents illegally as children. He was now offering an olive branch, but at the same time he insisted on his border ‘Trump’s Wall’ with Mexico and other concessions from Democrats as part of any over-arching immigration deal. Trump also touted his pet plan to rebuild America’s ageing roads and other infrastructure, though he did not offer many details.
In order to showcase the rising talent, the Democratic Party had chosen Massachusetts congressman Joseph Kennedy III, a great nephew of legendary President John F. Kennedy to deliver the rebuttal. A new Kennedy in the spotlight spoke from a vocational high school in Fall River, Massachusetts, a onetime manufacturing hub now struggling with high unemployment and other problems. Kennedy, 37, a three-term congressman and grandson of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, has urged Democrats to focus on the economic worries of working-class voters who bolted the party in the 2016 elections. Representative Kennedy attempted to turn the tables on Trump by speaking for “Americans who feel forgotten and forsaken.”
In a hard-hitting speech, Kennedy bewailed a “fractured country’ and depicted the Trump presidency as “chaos” and added: “Many have spent the past year anxious, angry, afraid.” Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Trump’s appeal for unity, after a year of “divisive actions, petty insults and disgraceful race-baiting . . . ring hallow.” Democratic lawmakers were unimpressed. Many boycotted this SOTU and others sat in stony-faced silence amid standing ovations from the Republicans.
On foreign policy, Trump only mentioned Russia once alongside China as a rival. He did not refer to the federal inquiry into whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election. Both he and Russia have denied this allegation, although there is mounting proof to the contrary. This controversy is escalating and proving to be debilitating for his presidency. He also noted that nearly all the territory in Syria and Iraq once controlled by the Islamic State group has been retaken, and he, of course, took credit for that. He left unmentioned America’s policy in the Middle East which now lies in tatters after he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also avoided mentioning America’s longest war – that in Afghanistan.
Trump reverted to his true self on the subject of the North Korean nuclear threat: “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.” North-South negotiations earlier this month have eased fears of war on the Korean peninsula. These fears were in part fueled by an exchange of insults and threats between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump and his top associates have publicly welcomed the talks but US officials have said privately that Pyongyang may be trying to drive a wedge between the South Korean and US allies.North Korea has upped the ante by deciding to send its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam, 90, to Pyeongchang this week for the Winter Olympics, the most senior official to ever visit South Korea. This is taken as a sign that North Korea is very interested in improving inter-Korean relations. It is unclear ehether Kim Yong-nam will attend the opening ceremony along with US Vice President Mike Pence.
It seems that Trump and some of his aides have grown increasingly frustrated by what they consider the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide the president with options for a military strike against the North. The Pentagon itself is deeply worried that the White House increasingly favours military action against North Korea that could escalate catastrophically. Internal tensions in the administration have surfaced and plans to nominate a prominent Korea expert, Victor D. Cha (professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Washington), as ambassador to South Korea have been dropped. He was sidelined because he warned administration officials against a “preventive” military attack, which could spiral “into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans” [not to mention millions of innocent South Koreans ].Writing in “The Washington Post”, Professor Cha pointed out the flawed reasoning: “If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?” He cemented his logic further: “And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?” Professor Cha’s stance against preventive military action is fully supported by colleagues at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. It can only be hoped that cooler heads will prevail in the Trump administration.

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