For Those Who Waited: A Retrospective on President Trump’s State of the Union

Alexis Corn

On Tuesday evening, President Trump gave his “choosing greatness”-themed speech.

On Tuesday evening, President Trump gave his “choosing greatness”-themed speech, which sought to highlight the need for bipartisan action to tackle immigration, trade and the American workforce, infrastructure, prescription drugs, and national security.

This speech reflected the characteristics of many presidential addresses to Congress, including a retrospective of a president’s accomplishments made in office, an illustration of the administration’s goals for the year, a commendation of the unique attributes of America and its people, and a large dose of American exceptionalism. Like presidents in the past, President Trump used word choice and frequency to emphasize his political agenda and appeal to his audience, which, in this case, is the American viewer. As such, words that tend to unite the president’s audience, such as “America,” “American,” “together,” and “our country,” were frequently used in both SOTU speeches. President Trump used a variation of “America” 72 times last year and 70 times this year.

Drug pricing, a bipartisan concern, continued to trend in both SOTU addresses. President Trump uttered the word “drug” in terms of drug pricing five times—the same frequency as last year’s SOTU. The president also used the word “drug” to refer criminal justice reform, opioids, dealers, or South American cartels during both speeches.

However, in comparing this SOTU speech to last year’s, President Trump made two noteworthy adjustments.

First, immigration and border wall terms factored heavily into Tuesday night’s speech. President Trump mentioned various words or phrases referring to his southern border wall agenda. These notably include:

  • “illegal crossings” or “illegal border crossings” (mentioned three times),
  • “illegal immigration” (mentioned three times),
  • “illegal immigrants” (mentioned once),
  • “border” (mentioned 13 times – excluding the term “border agent”),
  • “illegal aliens” or “criminal aliens” (mentioned three times), and
  • “wall” (mentioned eight times that were related to immigration).

During last year’s address, the word “illegal” was mentioned once (in terms of “illegal immigrants”) and “border” was mentioned three times (as with the above use of the word, the term “border agent” was excluded). This reflects the growing divide between President Trump and Democrats as they continue to argue over whether to spend $5 billion constructing a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It also speaks to President Trump’s narrowing negotiation position. Unable to force Democrats to budge on funding and worrying some Republicans over threatening to invoke a state of emergency, President Trump lacks the leverage that he needs to fulfill his campaign promise.

As a result, focusing on the border wall and asking publicly for a compromise (as he said, “Simply put, walls work and walls save lives. So let’s work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”) is one of his few remaining negotiation tactics to rally public opinion to his side.

Most notably, this year’s SOTU address diverged from last SOTU’s emphasis of the “worker.” Last year, President Trump mentioned the oft-mythicized “worker” or “workers” a total 10 times. This year, the president mentioned “worker” or “workers” just three times. This seemed odd, as President Trump has maintained fairly strong support from blue collar workers and has highlighted this demographic in the past. Yet, after helming the longest shutdown in American history and facing a severe popularity backlash, the White House may have believed that referencing the American worker at this juncture would ring hollow. Tuesday’s speech may have been the beginning of a new messaging trend for this White House. President Trump mentioned women (albeit, for a range of reasons) 12 times. President Trump and the rest of his administration will likely continue messaging towards voting demographics, such as women, to appeal to blocs that will factor prominently in the 2020 presidential elections. As the election campaign ramps up, particularly in the fall of this year, the SOTU address will serve as a foundation for both his campaign and the GOP platform.