Even before President Trump made it to the podium to deliver his first State of the Union address, African-American legislators signaled that they held little hope that his message would deliver good news to them or their constituencies.
Some, like Democratic Congressmen John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) refused to attend. Meanwhile, other members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were present wore black and kente cloth to signal their disapproval of Trump’s comments on African nations he called “shitholes” earlier this month.
The president took a less strident approach as he boasted about America’s present and future success under his leadership. His one hour and 20-minute message was the second longest behind former President Bill Clinton. It included plans for $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements, a four-point immigration policy and an effort to lower prescription drug prices, among others. Those, he said, would be building blocks to his making good on his campaign promise to “Make America Great Again.”
Republicans met his words with roaring approval and standing ovations. The majority of the Democrats present sat stoic in their seats. A few scoffed and hissed when the president mentioned how he wanted to move America’s immigration policies away from families and towards a system based on immigrants’ ability contribute to the U.S. economy.
Trump said he also has a plan to protect the more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to America by their parents as children, commonly referred to as “dreamers.” Still, he said, his first obligation is to current U.S. citizens.
“My duty…is to defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American Dream,” Trump said. “Because Americans are dreamers too.”
Members’ antagonism was pronounced following Trump’s remarks on black unemployment numbers, saying they were the lowest on record. It didn’t sit well with representatives like Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), who felt the president was not telling the whole story of those figures.
“He was saying some of the right things, but his policies don’t align with them,” Lawrence said. “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do and what your policies are.”
What Trump failed the mention was that the sharp decline in black unemployment began eight years ago under President Barack Obama, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate peaked during the Great Recession in 2010 at 16.8%, which was the highest since 1984. Trump has presided over one year of a continuation of a trend in which the rate has declined about 1 percentage point a year. Though the rate of unemployment for African Americans is at its lowest, it is still nearly double that of white Americans.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were especially defiant, making few attempts to acknowledge the president’s message. Eight members of the more than a dozen Congressional members who boycotted Trump’s speech were members of the CBC.
“I will not sit and watch as Trump pretends that he’s off to a successful start.,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in a statement explaining his absence. “He’s not. I refuse to participate in pomp and circumstance that does nothing but normalize his egregious and hateful behavior.”
Conservative members, however, approved of the president’s message. They said it achieved the goal of unifying a deeply-divided Congress while criticizing Democrats for their refusal to acknowledge any part of it.
“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to treat the president with respect,” said Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who alone shutdown the government during President Obama’s term with a filibuster that included reading a children’s book to Congress to maintain the floor. “We didn’t see that tonight. That is a sad statement of how extreme Washington Democrats got.”
Al Lawson, a freshman representative from northern Florida, said he is willing to push for bipartisanship in policymaking moving forward. He was one of few Democrats to stand up at certain times during the president’s address.
“He’s the president of the United States, and the issues that he talked about we deserve to do it,” Lawson said. “This is his forum and he said some things that are very important.”
As Democrats and Republicans ramp up efforts for the midterm elections, the president’s speech provided lawmakers on both sides of the aisle talking points. For Republicans, however, preparation could involve significant effort and policies that, to Cruz, will require “laser focus” to offset any Democratic victory.
“The 2018 is entirely about turnout,” he said. “The hard left will show up—and if conservatives show up, Republicans could have a big victory at the polls.”