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Can Trump sustain newfound aura of gravitas?

Kathleen Parker on

WASHINGTON -- It was a good speech.

Calm down. I said good.

Despite talking for an hour and 20 minutes, the longest speech since Bill Clinton's much-mocked 2000 stem-winder, Donald Trump's first State of the Union address did exactly what it needed to do: nothing.

It wasn't strident; it wasn't provocative; it wasn't alienating; it wasn't retributive; it wasn't divisive -- except to Democrats who would have sneered in disgust even if he'd said, "I'm sorry for all the ridiculous, mean things I've said the past year."

All disclaimers and critiques aside, there's a rule known to all public speakers: People don't remember what you say; they remember how you make them feel. Only journalists, pundits, politicians, professors and speechwriters will closely examine the content of the president's speech. The rest of America, to the extent they watched the speech at all, will have gone to bed thinking, "Gosh, he was surprisingly good. Maybe there's hope after all."

Listening to post-mortems on television Wednesday morning, I was struck by the consensus that Trump sowed division in his address to the nation. I even heard words such as "horrifying" to describe certain aspects. I'm thinking: You don't know the American people.

The crux of most of the criticism was that Trump gave a speech encouraging unity while doing the opposite. By this they meant he invoked several hot-button issues, such as the "take a knee" movement and the violence of the Salvadoran gang MS-13.

Both of these references among a smattering of others were strictly gratuitous and meant, presumably, to bestir the base. But when compared with the fire and brimstone of his inaugural address, these represent relatively minor flaws. Indeed, most Americans do prefer that people show respect for the national anthem by standing, and they are fearful of the potential for violent characters to cross the border without enhanced security.

To Democratic ears, of course, Trump was fear-mongering and race-baiting, which, while not unprecedented, seems nearly as gratuitous a reaction. This was underscored when Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III, during his State of the Union response, intoned: "Vamos a luchar por ustedes" (We're going to fight for you).

Otherwise, it is only reasonable that the president cited laudable benchmarks -- economic progress, surging markets (notwithstanding Tuesday's brief plummet), and greater business confidence. Noteworthy are recent stories about people who, through one retirement plan or another, are feeling friskier these days. Fidelity recently reported that the average annual return for 401(k)s hit 15.7 percent by the third quarter of 2017.

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