By John F. Di Leo -
Reflections on a State of the Union Message
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
“Mr. Gorbachev: Tear Down This Wall!”
Every politician, when making a speech, hopes to hit a few major themes, and hopes to include lines that are as descriptive and memorable as the quotes above from Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan… but it’s a lot to hope for.
In recent years, the State of the Union message has largely become an annual laundry list of spending proposals, some with great likelihood of passage, others slight reaches… and often, some with no chance whatsoever, mentioned only for an applause line or a signal to some desired demographic, subtly saying, between the lines, that “I’m on your side, see? I mentioned your impossible policy desire.”
To his credit, President Trump resisted the recent trend in his 2018 SOTU address, and instead delivered a well-designed list of positions, none new, just a reaffirmation of his administration’s commitment to the positions on which he ran, sprinkled with examples of accomplishments from his first year, often artfully illustrated with guests in the audience.
While Mr. Trump is not considered one of the great orators of American history, he and his speechwriters certainly succeeded with this speech. It was the best State of the Union message in decades, the best since the Reagan years. While there is always some partisanship in any speech, he filled it with enough imagery of the non-political reality of Americana that all but the most partisan of viewers should have felt inspired by it.
True stories of a courageous border guard whose team has caught and imprisoned hundreds of killers… the responders who raced to save colleagues on the battlefield, a crack baby and the victims of natural disasters… the workers and entrepreneurs, knocked down but not beaten by a recession, who now prosper in America’s small business sector.
These excellent illustrations of the American spirit resonated, not only with his base, but with all but those clouded minds who take their instructions on how to think from the likes of Pelosi and Schumer.
The American Dream
The most effective line at the time was likely Mr. Trump’s attempt to take back the concept of the American Dream for the American people. Objecting to the open-borders Left’s recent effort to hijack the concept by calling illegal immigrants “Dreamers,” he reminded his audience that “Americans are dreamers, too!” to thunderous and well-deserved applause. This one statement did exactly what an orator hopes a line will do: it distills a complex issue down to a single fundamental image, perhaps even turning the way people think of a word back to what it originally was.
The citizens of the United States have been believers in The American Dream for centuries. The very concept of American Exceptionalism is based on the premise that our nation is the virtual incarnation of the Biblical “City on a Hill…” this golden experiment in representative republican governance was founded upon the principles of severely limited government, the free market, Judeo-Christian religious devotion… and as such, the United States are the culmination of Western Civilization.
That’s what the American Dream is all about… and Mr. Trump’s short statement – “Americans are dreamers, too!” – inspires the audience and focuses the policy argument at its heart. The open-borders advocates claim to be able to deliver the American Dream while destroying its foundations.
With this single line, Mr. Trump reminds us all that the American Dream is not available to all, without condition; the potential for the distinctly American “pursuit of happiness” and opportunity for earned prosperity are dependent upon the United States remaining based on severely limited government, the free market, and Judeo-Christian religious devotion. He reminds us – in just four short words – that we cannot build a mansion while destroying the foundation upon which it rests.
Draining the Swamp
In my personal opinion, one other line was equally strong, though perhaps not as obviously, and it merits consideration as well. In his discussion about veterans, and in particular, the challenges in dealing with the bureaucracy of the Veterans’ Administration and their hospital system, Mr. Trump said the following:
“We are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do.”
Now, this had the desired impact, as it reminded our military personnel, both those currently serving and those retired, that this administration intends to be a friend to the armed forces.
But it did more than that. I would argue that this line was among the defining lines of the speech, because this one sentence, more than any other, reminded the audience of a distinction that has been growing in this country for nearly a century. As government has grown bigger and bigger, overflowing beyond the beltway, bursting the boundaries that our Constitution originally constructed, a new dividing line has grown up between America’s public and private sectors.
On the surface, the sentence reminded us of the shame of the VA, revealed over the past decade. The terrible conditions at many VA hospitals, the double-entry lists in which bureaucrats carelessly dismissed the health needs of those for whom they had no time, no staff, or no interest.
And yes, the sentence also reminded us of the specific failures of the Obama administration, as we watched their blatantly uninterested responses to these many overwhelming discoveries of incompetence, fraud and abuse.
But to me, this one sentence included much more than just the issue of the urgency of systemic VA reform. Let’s hear it again:
“We are hiring talented people who love our vets as much as we do.”
There is another critical undercurrent in this line, besides redoubling our effort to reform the VA, besides reminding our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of our love and respect for their sacrifice on their nation’s behalf.
He’s talking about personnel, isn’t he? He’s talking about changing the culture at the VA by changing the staff.
By pointing out the importance of who works for these federal agencies, Mr. Trump reminded Reaganites of an important old axiom that still beats in the hearts of movement conservatives, almost forty years after the Reagan Revolution. “Personnel is Policy,” as the saying goes. It’s good for today’s conservatives to see that this administration knows that. This complicates things a bit; but it’s all about living in reality: you have to know that issuing a directive (such as an executive order) isn’t enough; you need staffers who believe in it.
In this sentence, he reminded his audience that, all too often, the caricature of the unfeeling faceless federal bureaucrat is all too real, not only in the VA but in every federal agency. Yes, in every one.
That one line reminded us that federal civil servants, all too often, are not there for the right reason… that far too many bureaucrats are in place for some agenda other than the good of the American people. This sentence reminds us that part of the administration’s job is to do the best it can to identify such wastes of oxygen, and purge them from the federal payroll, if our nation is to survive.
That’s not an easy promise. Union contracts, the Hatch Act, and countless government regulations make it almost impossible to terminate a federal employee. Mr. Trump holds no illusion that it will be easy to identify and remove all the dead wood in the federal government.
But acknowledging the challenge out loud was a critical first step.
Mr. Trump says that our VA should be composed of people who love our veterans as much as the American people do, and I hope I’m not reading too much into it to expand that point, and recognize that Mr. Trump is saying that all federal employees should love this country, and love its foundational elements – severely limited government, the free market, Judeo-Christian religious devotion, the traditions of Western Civilization – and if people don’t believe in this fundamental, “Founding Fathers” focused worldview, maybe they aren’t the right people to be populating the federal bureaucracy.
Again and again, Mr. Trump reminded the audience – including the elected officials who shared the room with him – that our government is supposed to serve the American people, not rule over them. And he stressed that his administration would be dedicated to restoring that understanding.
And for that key theme alone, this was a magnificent and welcome speech.
Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based trade compliance lecturer, actor, and writer. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review. Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.