It was an aggressive continuation of a strategy that he and his advisers believe should be a central part of his reelection effort: courting African-Americans, even if the odds look stacked against him and polls show that most black voters believe he is making the country’s racial issues worse.
The administration welcomed five black guests in the first lady’s box this year, days after Mr Trump’s reelection campaign aired an ad at the Super Bowl featuring Alice Marie Johnson, an African-American woman who was granted clemency last year. Polls show that Mr Trump has an uphill battle to win over black voters – a Washington Post/Ipsos poll released last month showed that more than 80 per cent of black respondents said they believed Mr Trump was racist — but he still used his annual address to try to gain some ground.
Gesturing to the guests, Mr Trump highlighted the story of 100-year-old Charles McGee, one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, a squad of African-American pilots in the Second World War. Mr Trump said he had promoted Mr McGee to brigadier general.
Mr Trump also called out 13-year-old Iain Lanphier, Mr McGee’s great-grandson. In a release, the White House said Iain had graduated from a programme sponsored by the Organisation of Black Aerospace Professionals.
In touting his policies, which he said allowed “wealthy people and companies” to give money to disadvantaged areas, Mr Trump showcased the story of Tony Rankins from Cincinnati, an Army veteran and former addict who he said was at work in an “opportunity zone”, a tax incentive that is intended to encourage investors to pump money into the nation’s poorest neighbourhoods.
“This is the first time that these deserving communities have seen anything like this,” Mr Trump said. “It is all working!”
As he spoke, Mr Trump also awarded a so-called opportunity scholarship to Janiyah Davis, the daughter of a single mother who the president said: “would do anything to give her daughter a better future”. The mention of the scholarships – designed to allow low-income families to send their children to a private school of their choice – was meant to bolster the administration’s efforts to promote school choice, an issue popular with minority voters. Mr Trump used the opportunity to plug the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.
During a speech peppered with theatrics – including directing his wife Melania to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host who has advanced stage lung cancer – Mr Trump’s overtures to black voters were not subtle. His gestures earned him accolades from his administration members and Republican supporters gathered in the House chamber, but others criticised MrTrump’s checklist-style approach as pandering.
“This entire #SOTU is a micro-Targeted campaign speech,” tweeted Jason Johnson, a politics and journalism professor at Morgan State University. “Handing out gifts for poor black folks. Pitying single black mothers to appeal to white women in the burbs. This is about the base and suppressing the black vote. Dems aren’t paying attention.”
Derrick Johnson, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, dismissed the proceedings as little more than stagecraft.
“As we witness yet another episode of political theatre, take a moment to check your voter registration status and encourage your friends and family to vote,” Mr Johnson said on Twitter. “We have the power to change course and elect officials who are committed to protecting our democracy.”
During Mr Trump’s speech, some, but not all, members of the Congressional Black Caucus stood and applauded as Mr Trump rattled off his administration’s achievements. Earlier in the day, members of the Democratic group’s leadership said they were not impressed with Mr Trump’s overtures, including the Super Bowl advertisement.
In recent days, the White House and Trump campaign allies have acted bullish on bringing black voters into the fold, including a “$25,000 cash giveaway” held by a nonprofit organisation run by one of Mr Trump’s most prominent African-American supporters.
Despite scepticism that these tactics will work to win over voters in the autumn, Mr Trump’s advisers, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have told him that black voters will show their support if they can simply be educated on his policies.
The New York Times