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ODU Expert: State of the Union Address Unlikely to Resonate in Partisan Environment

By Jon Cawley

President Donald Trump sought to reach out to opponents and cast a unified vision of the country in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, a political scientist at Old Dominion University said.

"The president mentioned 'America' 82 times, 'we' 129 times, 'our' 104 times, but 'I' only 29 times, while the speech was laden with calls to put aside differences," said Ben Melusky, an associate professor of political science.

Trump delivered his First State of the Union address in front of Congress and millions of Americans watching on television and the internet.

In the speech - which lasted for about 90 minutes, making it one of the longest in history - Trump cited his victories during his first year in office, key among them passage of a tax-cut bill that he said would result in larger paychecks for many Americans.

Trump also highlighted his immigration reform proposal, which would provide a path to citizenship for "dreamers" - the undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children - in exchange for increased border security and reductions in levels of legal immigration.

Elsewhere in foreign policy, Trump said his administration was applying "maximum pressure" to prevent North Korea from acquiring functioning nuclear weapons. Trump also announced that he had formally reversed the Obama administration's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility, which has housed terrorism suspects and enemy combatants for more than a decade.

Melusky noted that Trump focused on the economy, infrastructure, immigration and security, most of which are typical Republican bread-and-butter policy areas. Trump also reiterated his successes in a framework favorable to the traditional Republican base, which Melusky said would be important going into the elections later this year.

The president, he said, tried to offer Republicans in competitive districts a unifying message and present an image of a strong leader.

"In terms of the need for unity to move policy, the president did extend the olive branch several times regarding DACA, infrastructure and job creation," Melusky said. But he added, "His follow-up comments regarding illegal immigration, MS13 (gangs) and rolling back Obama-era regulations poison the well a bit in trying to open dialogue and reach compromise."

Melusky also noted Trump's body language. A few times, the president turned and extended his arm toward the Democratic side of the chamber.

The gestures could have been intended to "symbolically extend the olive branch and physically signal a moment where the Democrats could stand and join in the applause or perhaps merely to highlight that they were not applauding," Melusky said.

"Ultimately, in this era of hyper-partisanship and polarization, it's difficult to believe that this address (or any) will move the needle that much."

Melusky said he was interested to see viewership ratings for the address given several social media campaigns seeking to boycott the event.

"It will undoubtedly be down from his address to the joint session of Congress last year, which had 47.7 million viewers and a 28.7 rating, but how much, what reasons and how each side interprets the ratings is what is important," he said.

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