By Hazel Trice Edney,
President Donald B. Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech, delivered Tuesday night, following a government shutdown that left many people irreparably damaged, was taken in stride by African Americans and Democratic leaders who express little hope for change.
“We meet tonight at a moment of unlimited potential. As we begin a new Congress, I stand here ready to work with you to achieve historic breakthroughs for all Americans,” Trump said in the speech in which he never mentioned the hardships of the historic shutdown which, for weeks, put thousands of Americans either out of work or caused them to work without pay. “Millions of our fellow citizens are watching us now, gathered in this great chamber, hoping that we will govern not as two parties but as one nation. The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.”
The lofty words of the president resonated little with Democrats and black leaders as he ignored the pain of the shutdown for which he initially claimed credit. Besides that, America had heard it all before. Even during his inaugural address, he promised to be president for all the people after which his administration has become one of the most racially and culturally divisive in history.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams pointed to Trump’s sins of omission as the official Democratic respondent to his speech.
“Just a few weeks ago, I joined volunteers to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers. They waited in line for a box of food and a sliver of hope since they hadn’t received paychecks in weeks. Making livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games is a disgrace. The shutdown was a stunt, engineered by the president of the United States, one that betrayed every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values,” Abrams said.
Trump’s speech got intense applause from Republicans, especially as he mentioned his quest for a “border wall” which has become widely known as a dog-whistle to his base and a core race issue. As he pushed the need for the wall in the speech, he never mentioned his campaign promise that “Mexico will pay” for the wall.
“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built. I’ll get it built,” he said.
But, Abrams was clear on how millions of others view the wall.
“Democrats stand ready to effectively secure our ports and borders,” she said. “But we must all embrace that from agriculture to healthcare to entrepreneurship, America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls.”
Trump laid out some key bi-partisan goals such as research to end childhood cancer and HIV/AIDS as well as successes, including economic gains, infrastructure and criminal justice reform.
Guests in the gallery included formerly incarcerated offenders who he had pardoned under new bi-partisan criminal justice reform. Those guests included Alice Johnson, who had served nearly 22 years of a life sentence as a first-time drug offender and Matthew Charles, sentenced to 35 years for selling drugs now “the first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act,” Trump said.
Despite the bipartisan highlights in the speech, black leaders note that his “racist” views and policy omissions far outweigh the positives.
“Once again the president used the State of the Union as an opportunity to spew the same racist rhetoric, that does nothing but bolster his detachment and disinterest towards the real issues that plague our nation,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement. “While President Trump rallied for a wall on the border and credited his presidency for lowering unemployment numbers, which he touted after the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history, he conveniently overlooked the voter suppression, over policing, gun violence and detrimental and xenophobic immigration policies that his administration has instituted that disproportionately affect communities of color.”
Johnson continued in his statement, “As racism continues to permeate through every level of our society, it’s clear from his failure to protect the right to vote and civil rights for ALL, that this president’s agenda represents nothing but pain and suffering for communities of color, the poor, the LGBT community, women and immigrants. Because of this, the state of our union is not strong.”
Jim Clyburn, the most powerful black member of Congress as House majority whip, pointed out that Democrats are ready to work with the president, but their disagreement on the meaning of “greatness” is a major barrier.
“We welcome his words of comity and are hopeful there will be issues like infrastructure, prescription drug costs and defeating the spread of HIV where we can find common ground. However, as House Democrats, we know the role we were elected to play and, as my faith teaches me, we know we will be judged on our deeds not our words.
“The president’s theme tonight was ‘Choosing Greatness,’ but I question how he defines that term. I believe that America is already great, and, like historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, the country’s greatness ‘lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.’ Democrats stand ready to work with the president when possible, but in strong opposition when necessary, to repair our faults so we may become a more perfect union.”