The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s State of the Union addresses are very different from his predecessors’. Here’s how.

Here's a round-up of 10 dubious claims made by the president during his annual speech to Congress. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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On Tuesday night, President Trump delivered his second State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. (As is true for all first-term presidents, Trump’s speech before a joint session of Congress in 2017 is not technically considered a State of the Union address. But we count it as equivalent.) This one clocked in at 82 minutes, the longest such address by a president since Bill Clinton’s 89-minute address in 2000. Major news outlets reported on several highlights, including the president’s antiabortion rhetoric, his argument for a southern border wall, and the female Democrats’ show of party and gender unity, dressed in suffragette white.

What we offer is something different. Using the tools and data of the U.S. Policy Agendas Project, we undertook a systematic analysis of the address’s policy content and compared it to that of former presidents’ addresses.

How we did our research

The U.S. Policy Agendas Project is a nonpartisan academic unit, housed at the University of Texas at Austin, that collects and organizes data from various archived sources to trace changes in the U.S. national policy agenda since World War II. We analyze State of the Union addresses, broken into quasi-sentences, dating to President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 address.

Each of these quasi-sentences is coded using the Policy Agendas Project’s common categorization scheme. The scheme consists of 20 major topics, including energy, education and defense policy, and 221 subtopics, including nuclear energy, higher education and weapons sales. Using this standardized system of demarcating policy content, we can observe the amount of attention Trump devoted to each policy issue in his address and compare it to that of previous presidents.

Research suggests that presidents can affect the congressional agenda by emphasizing certain issues in the State of the Union. Of course, there are conditions. Popular presidents can push Congress to address their core priorities, but unpopular ones cannot. Presidents are more successful at setting agendas when their party holds a congressional majority in either chamber. Because Trump holds an approval rating of about 40 percent, he is unlikely to successfully push Congress to focus on his core policy priorities. However, his speech does help reveal his administration’s core priorities for the coming year.

Here is how Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address breaks down by major topic:

As has been true for many modern presidents, much of Trump’s address contained no policy content. Quasi-statements classified as having no policy content include platitudes such as “God bless America” and general expressions of thanks. When he did focus on policy, Trump primarily focused on conservative “red meat” policy issues, including law and crime, immigration, and defense.

Notably, Trump was the first president since 1948 with any statements categorized as containing abortion policy content. No past president has highlighted abortion directly in a State of the Union.

In many ways, Trump’s State of the Union priorities mirror his Republican predecessor’s. Trump placed a greater emphasis on law and crime, immigration, and statements containing no policy content. Bush placed a greater emphasis on foreign affairs, understandable given the important foreign policy events during his presidency. He also placed greater emphasis on social welfare policy as part of his failed attempts to change the Social Security pension system. On most other topics, Trump’s and Bush’s allocations are nearly identical.

It is not surprising that Trump’s focus on immigration and border security has been an outlier compared with all presidents since 1948. We derived a rough measure of this by combining immigration, a major topic in our system, with a subtopic under our law and crime major topic that deals with executive agency law enforcement, including border security. In their State of the Union speeches, presidents seldom discuss issues other than border security in this subtopic. In the graph below, we combine these two categories and trace them through time.

No other presidents since World War II have made either issue a major component of their speech. Building a wall on the southern border has been Trump’s core issue priority since the beginning of his campaign, and this focus remains unique in U.S. politics.

How did an annual report to Congress become the State of the Union address, a formal state occasion? Here’s the deal.

In sum, Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech was remarkable for its lack of policy content, compared with those of past presidents. When he discussed policy, he emphasized a very limited number of “red meat” issues that presumably appeal to his base of voters. His mentions of immigration and law and crime far exceeded those of Presidents Obama and G.W. Bush, as did his policy-free comments. His focus on immigration and border security in 2018 and 2019 far exceeded any other president by a very large margin.

Maraam Dwidar (@maraamdwidar) is a PhD candidate in government at the University of Texas at Austin and the director of undergraduate research for the U.S. Policy Agendas Project

Connor Dye is a PhD student in government at the University of Texas at Austin. 

E.J. Fagan (@ejfagan) is a PhD candidate in government at the University of Texas at Austin and manager of the U.S. Policy Agendas Project

Katie Madel is a PhD student in government at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Laura Quaglia is a PhD student in government at the University of Texas at Austin and holds an MA in international strategic studies.