Not very many college students watched the State of the Union Address, based on my general knowledge of my peers and the fact that according to Salon and Rasmussen Reports, Americans under the age of 40 get the majority of their news from political satire. It’s hard to blame college students, who barely have time to wash dishes, for not taking almost an hour and a half out of their day to watch a very long speech, yet there are several reasons why college students need to watch it.
I, probably like many others, was first introduced to the content of this year’s State of the Union by Stephen Colbert. I appreciated the overview (especially a joke about President Trump carefully watching a bouncing cheeseburger on the teleprompter). However, the punchlines in political satires are usually about the president’s weight, his speaking blunders, relationships or toupee – i.e. rarely political. We lose a lot by getting the bulk of our political knowledge from satires.
The first reason we should all watch the actual SOTU address is that it gave an overview of what actually got done in Washington last year. For me and many of my peers, last year seemed to be a pool of childish partisanship, incompetence and an actually non-functioning government. But there were surprising triumphs of bipartisanship I must have glazed over in search of (sadly) more interesting drama.
The president said, “In the last Congress, both parties came together to pass unprecedented legislation to confront the opioid crisis, a sweeping new Farm Bill, historic VA reforms, and after four decades of rejection, we passed VA Accountability so we can finally terminate those who mistreat our wonderful veterans.”
This gave me hope for bipartisanship that I think many people have lost. It added weight to the powerful first statement of the address: “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.”
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The previous statement was not the only surprisingly agreeable part of the address. Watching the speech means needing to accept a bit of painful humility to concede that we agree with what some of the president says. A large problem for many people my age, perpetuated by satirical programs, is that we use news merely to build up our pre-established political beliefs. One from the large-ish sample of agreeable statements was “The next major priority for me, and for all of us, should be to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs – and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions.”
Of course, we do have to take anything the president (or any other politician) says with caution. Politifact did rate some of his statements as exaggerated or half-true. Also, there’s a question of sincerity.
At about eight minutes in, the president said “… we must reject the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise and the common good.” I thought, “Wait a minute!” Thankfully, Nancy Pelosi spoke for me, loudly clapping almost in the president’s face (which has since become an internet sensation).
Through this speech, we also can understand where we disagree with the president’s stances. Much of the media college students receive is left-leaning. For me, some of the presidents’ justifications for policies were the first time I ever heard his perspective. I sometimes had to think twice about some of my own beliefs. For example, on leaving the INF Treaty, the president said, “While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.” Knowing this, we can more knowledgeably agree or disagree. It’s a healthy political exercise.
Although the speech wasn’t oozing controversy, there were, of course, a few moments to appropriately check my optimism, including, “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,” and, “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”, and the one-narrative-applies-to-all, “… Debra's parents, Gerald and Sharon, were burglarized and shot to death in their Reno, Nevada, home by an illegal alien.”
Despite these undismissable problems, the State of the Union was surprisingly uplifting. Scattered throughout were heartwarming and heartbreaking stories of American heroes, young and old. There was a reminder that we have something to be proud of. Democratic women wore white in honor of the suffragettes who gained women the right to vote 100 years ago. Soldiers who fought at D-Day 75 years ago sat in the audience. And Alice Johnson showed us the happiness that a step in the right direction for criminal justice reform can bring. President Trump’s call to "choose greatness" was the most palatable version of MAGA I have heard.
Perhaps when you hear the speech, you hear something different from me. That’s ok. We need to move back to discussing the real political story, conceding where it goes right and standing firm where it doesn’t. It will take a commitment greater than laughing at a TV show, though, and I encourage you to try to make it.
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