Trump’s First Speech to Congress: Analysis by Heath Brown

Professor Heath Brown (GC/John Jay, Criminal Justice), a sought-after expert on electoral politics, analyzes the president’s first address to a joint session of Congress this week:
 
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President Donald J. Trump’s first address to Congress followed many of the policies he has promoted since taking office in January. While it lacked much of the caustic tone of his previous addresses, including his address at the Republican National Convention and inauguration, Trump was consistent in his focus on trade, immigration, and health care reform. 
 
One of the most interesting aspect of the address was likely lost on most watchers. It seems, based on an initial review of previous presidential addresses to Congress and State of the Union addresses, that this was the first time a president has mentioned home schooling in a major address to Congress. (If it wasn’t the first, it was pretty close to it.) While home schooling in the U.S. has been growing since the early 1980s, I can find no president mentioning this type of education prior to Donald Trump in such a significant speech. 
 
This is intriguing because of how this issue connects the president to a group of somewhat unlikely supporters: members of the religious right or Christian conservatives. Many Christian conservatives were slow to warm to Donald Trump when he was running for the Republican nomination. Tea Party-favorite Senator Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Governor Mike Huckabee garnered much more interest and support. 
 
However, as the campaign evolved and Trump eventually won the nomination, many Christian conservative leaders backed his candidacy. This was based, in part, on Trump’s promises to advance their agenda, including home schooling (or home education). He spoke at the Values Summit in September and declared: “School choice is at the center of this civil rights agenda, and my goal is to provide every single inner-city child in America that is trapped in a failing government school the freedom to attend the school of their choice. Competition — the schools, the schools will get better and better and better. And that means a private school, a religious school, a charter school, or a magnet school. School choice also means that parents can home-school their children.”
 
Christian conservative voters ultimately were convinced and voted in large numbers for Trump.
 
At the address to Congress on Tuesday, Trump fulfilled his campaign promise and said nearly the same thing as he did in September: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”
 
This has not been mere talk; the President has backed his rhetoric with action as well. For example, his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a long-time supporter of home schooling, and, among his many executive actions in the first month of his presidency, he named National School Choice Week and featured home schooling in his announcement. 
 
Previous presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and even Jimmy Carter, have had more established connections with Christian conservatives. But this week, Donald Trump may have clarified how he will fulfill the agenda of Christian conservatives in a much more substantive way than past presidents. While it may not get as much attention other aspects of his address, his brief endorsement of home schooling could be the start of an ambitious policy agenda for his administration.
 
 
In addition to his research, Heath Brown is an expert contributor to The HillThe Atlantic, and American Prospect, and hosts the New Books in Political Science podcast. He is the author of Pay-to-Play Politics: How Money Defines the American Democracy (2016) and Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement (2015), among other books.
 

Submitted on: MAR 2, 2017

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