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Trump’s 1st State of the Union: An opportunity to reaffirm what it means to be American

Editor's Note:

This post is part of series by Brookings experts on Trump's 1st State of the Union.

It is almost the end of January and that means that we are on the eve of President Trump’s first State of Union (SOTU) speech. I’m not sure that the rest of the country really focuses in on this annual event, but here in Washington, D.C., it is a ritual steeped in tradition and nuanced policy significance. Having been in a federal agency at one time, I know that there are agency SWAT teams that work to convince the White House that their particular issue should be mentioned in the SOTU. If they are successful, these teams then work tirelessly on the precise language to be inserted and then watch, with some anxiety, whether that language ends up in the final, televised utterances.

But for all its ritual and political mystery, the SOTU speech is an opportunity to set the tone of American politics (and let’s face it, the tone is primarily what our non-beltway fellow Americans are going to hear).

What should that tone be? Recently, seven photographers from the Washington Post interviewed Americans from around the country about what it means to be an American. What emerged was a shared sense that Americans value community and empathy, opportunity and drive, diversity, freedom and fundamental rights, a responsibility to engage, and faith in the nation. They also share a moderate fear for the future.

Not only was there a distinct and thoughtful sense of what means to be an American now, but most importantly, these Americans saw the U.S. as being something larger than themselves. This reflection should provide guidance on what President Trump should say on January 30th.

First, he should argue that with our strong economy comes a responsibility to ensure that the tide is lifting all boats. He should acknowledge that the economy has not benefitted everyone equally and that the bounty of a healthy economy gives the government and its leaders the latitude and resources to ensure that every American who faces headwinds now is afforded the dignity and opportunity to work, put food on the table, and help their families succeed. In an economic boom, we should pursue procyclical policies that acknowledge the economic impact of racism, discrimination, desperation and despair, and focus resources on overcoming the pernicious hurdles of being brown, female, LGBTQ, differently abled, or jobless or poor.

Second, the SOTU speech should focus on the palpable need that all Americans share—the desire to feel a connection with their communities and their fellow Americans. How are we going to take this fortunate economic moment and make overtures to those in our communities who may not look like us? How is the U.S., long a center of innovation, going to pioneer its way to a greater shared sense of purpose? My colleague, Carol Graham, has noted that African-Americans and Latinos have consistently much more optimistic outlooks than their white counterparts, a fact she attributes to a greater sense of connectedness in these communities. Shouldn’t we be showcasing these extraordinary assets at the SOTU and asking, how to we engage and draw strength from our more resilient communities?

Finally, the President should address race relations. We have been subjected to some very nasty and deadly episodes of racial violence over the last year. As has been the case for decades, young men of color disproportionally populate our prisons and are disproportionally fatally shot by police. Even at a moment of full employment, African- American and Latino unemployment is higher than that of whites.

As the Washington Post interviews suggest, Americans believe that diversity is core to who we are. And young people, increasingly see the world as less black and white than a collage of hues. President Trump should embrace what Americans themselves have said they hold dear—the notion that the U.S. is place of opportunity for everyone where those with drive succeed. The SOTU speech is the moment that our President transcends petty grievances and says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that a great America is a diverse, inclusive, and respectful America, where racism is no longer welcome.” If those words make it into the speech, I’m sure Americans will take notice.

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