State of the Union vs. the Response: ‘Hope and Change’

SAN DIEGO, Ca., February 6, 2019:   Another State of the Union address, and an inevitably contradictive response have come and gone. Within days, no one beyond political aficionados will remember the content of either speech or the reactions that were witnessed, beyond what talking points the Parties and media outlets choose to use to manipulate beliefs. As has become the practice, one Party offers hope while the other pleads for change.

From a non-partisan perspective, the SOTU speech was generally well-written. It highlighted successes and provided a glimpse into what might lie ahead. With regard to the latter, it provided no clear vision of how to get there, but then again, these speeches almost never do

The “response” was also well constructed. It emphasized the talking points that provided favorable results for Democrats in the 2018 congressional elections. It also provided a forum for Stacey Abrams for whom the Party has great expectations.

The delivery of both speeches was reasonably well done. President Trump will never read as well as former President Obama did any more than the former President ever delivered a speech as fluidly as former Presidents Clinton or Reagan. Each President must be measured within his or her own skill set, and reading from a TelePrompTer will never be one of President Trump’s gifts.

Conversely, Stacey Abrams performed extremely well in a difficult role. The “response,” which never really is one, is often problematic. Reaching for a water bottle or applying too much ChapStick® can undermine a promising career. However, Ms. Abrams avoided those minefields and delivered an articulate, well-framed synopsis of her Party’s talking points.

Both speakers had their weak moments; none of which seemed terminal.

President Trump unnecessarily raised eyebrows on at least three occasions:

  • “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction. Tonight, I ask you to choose greatness.” To some, the “vision or vengeance” comment may have seemed to be ironic coming from the President who so often chooses to tweet with a vengeance. Yet, he doubled down on the concept when he later stated, “… we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution — and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” The reality is that “revenge” and “retribution” seem to play a prominent role in his political arsenal.
  • An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.” The President would have been well-advised to stop at “politics” as the inclusion of “ridiculous partisan investigations” appeals only to his base, which will never abandon him. Similarly, while his supporters may have enjoyed the line, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” it risked sounding more like an homage to the late Johnny Cochran than a presidential proclamation.
  • And finally, “If I had not been elected President of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed,” was an “opinion” that might have better been left unstated.

Ms. Abrams also had some fallibilities as well. While she led with a compelling personal story, her speech was anything but responsive to a relatively positive State of the Union address. Instead, it reinforced what her Party believes is wrong with the United States while ignoring her Party’s failure to address the issues in periods during which it dominated the legislative branch.

For example, “We fought Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act,” glaringly ignores the history of which Party passed Jim Crow acts and filibustered, and in many cases voted against the Civil Rights Act. Then, she stated, “…we continue to confront racism from our past and in our present – which is why we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds – and call racism what it is. Wrong.” While her sentiment is unassailable, her Party is prominently struggling with this very issue in Virginia.

Ms. Abrams also made a self-serving reference to her recent loss in the Georgia gubernatorial election. She stated, “While I acknowledged the results of the 2018 election here in Georgia – I did not and we cannot accept efforts to undermine our right to vote. That’s why I started a nonpartisan organization called Fair Fight to advocate for voting rights… We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a “power grab.” Again, she conveniently ignored that she has not always made the distinction between eligible and ineligible voters. During her campaign, she included undocumented residents among the voters who would comprise the “blue wave” whose votes she hoped would put her in office. Her new cause is laudable if the organization truly remains nonpartisan.

In summary, both President Trump and Stacey Abrams served their Parties well but did little to close the gap between their respective Parties and those with whom they politically disagree.

For those with inquiring minds, here are links to the second State of the Union addresses[1] of former Presidents Reagan (1983), Bush #41 (1991), Clinton (1995), Bush #43 (2003), and Obama (2011) as well as President Trump’s. Compare the accomplishments, the tone of the language used, and the vision for the future in each of them. The Party in power usually offers “hope” while the opposing Party calls for “change” in its response. If elected officials could learn to combine the two in a more meaningful way than a campaign slogan, there might be a “hope” for positive “change” for all of us.

Spoiler Alert: The 1995 SOTU is particularly compelling because it highlights how far the Parties have swung in their respective positions.


T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years. He also has served as the Principal Political Analyst and host of Deconstructed for the Independent Voter News (IVN).


This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, Deconstructed, in the Independent Voter News (IVN).

[1] The first speech delivered by a President to a joint session of Congress is not officially a State of the Union address. Therefore, what appears to be a President’s third SOTU address is officially only his or her second address.