During his first official State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Trump benefited from the low expectations he’s set for himself. As we learned when he addressed Congress 11 months ago, the contrast between Twitter Trump (who shouts about “fake news” and taunts foreign leaders about the size of his “nuclear button”) and Teleprompter Trump (who is barely capable of slowly uttering coherent sentences for an hour straight) does make it seem like we suddenly have a normal president — until you stop to consider the deeply partisan, nativist messages he’s conveying.
Representative Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, who delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s speech, benefited from low expectations, too. Yes, the broken-down car was a bit corny, and it prompted every Republican on Twitter to make the same morbid jokes about the Chappaquiddick incident involving his great-uncle Ted. But by speaking before an audience at Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, Kennedy avoided the hostage-video feel of recent opposition responses.
Yet Kennedy’s performance would be impressive even if he wasn’t following some of the most awkward political moments in recent memory. Speaking with energy and earnestness, he sharply rebuked Trump for sowing fear and division, without actually mentioning the president’s name.
“This administration isn’t just targeting the laws that protect us — they are targeting the very idea that we are all worthy of protection,” Kennedy said. “For them, dignity isn’t something you’re born with, but something you measure: by your net worth, your celebrity, your headlines, your crowd size. Not to mention, the gender of your spouse. The country of your birth. The color of your skin. The god of your prayers.”
Kennedy went on to decry Trump’s view of American life as a “zero-sum game,” in which one group must be cut out in order to promote the needs and concerns of another. But he closed with an upbeat image of Americans coming together, whether to fight for racial justice, battle natural disasters, or resist Trump.
“Bullies may land a punch. They might leave a mark,” he said. “But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”
The three-term congressman was likely selected for the SOTU response because a number of his speeches have gone viral in the last year. That’s made him a rising star in the party, though not one who’s involved in the jockeying among Democratic lawmakers to be Trump’s 2020 challenger.
It looks like Kennedy’s effort to raise his national profile succeeded, as his name was trending on Twitter even hours after the speech — but not solely because of his Obama-esque rhetoric. Many were more focused on the shininess at the corners of his mouth, alleged to be either drool or errant chapstick.
It would not be a State of the Union response without some amateurish gaffe.