The official opposition party response to the State of the Union has long been a dull event, something akin to punishment in recent years as gaffes overpowered message, turning politicians into memes. But after a string of forgettable responses, on Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams broke the dry spell. As the first black woman to give an official State of the Union response, Abrams offered a vision of America that countered Trump’s, giving Democrats a message with substance.
Draped in red, Abrams stood in front of a blur of bodies, their faces ranging from pale peaches to dark brown. It was diversity that didn’t feel like a prop. The former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate swiftly struck a seamless balance between earnest storytelling and progressive advocacy.
“Growing up, my family went back and forth between lower middle class and working poor,” Abrams began. “Yet, even when they came home weary and bone-tired, my parents found a way to show us all who we could be.”
This set the stage for Abrams’s case that America could show us who we could be too, if not for Republican policies that suppress the vote, dismantle affordable health care, and cages children. Though its mission is clear, it is comically out of touch with the average American.
“In Georgia and around the country, people are striving for a middle class where a salary truly equals economic security,” said Abrams. “But instead, families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it. Under the current administration, far too many hard-working Americans are falling behind, living paycheck to paycheck, most without labor unions to protect them from even worse harm.”
Abrams didn’t mince words. She called the government shutdown a “stunt” that made a pawn of the livelihoods of furloughed federal workers. She said the Republican party “responds timidly” to first graders performing active shooter drills. She brought the increasing black maternal mortality rate to the national stage, a crisis most politicians—regardless of party—regard as a niche issue. And she didn’t hesitate to call out the racist voter suppression tactics that dogged the Georgia gubernatorial race. “We must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds,” she said, “and call racism what it is: Wrong.”
Abrams’s speech radiated hope, emphasized by an easy smile that only faltered when she drove a point home. But her vision of what America could be didn’t overshadow her concern for what America currently is: A country that has the means to provide for its people, but chooses not to. Her depiction of the nation’s healthcare crisis is one that may not be recognizable to someone like President Trump, but is familiar to millions of Americans:
My father has battled prostate cancer for years. To help cover the costs, I found myself sinking deeper into debt – because while you can defer some payments, you can’t defer cancer treatment. In this great nation, Americans are skipping blood pressure pills, forced to choose between buying medicine or paying rent. Maternal mortality rates show that mothers, especially black mothers, risk death to give birth. And in 14 states, including my home state where a majority want it, our leaders refuse to expand Medicaid, which could save rural hospitals, economies, and lives.
The universality of Abrams’s message was in sharp contrast to Trump’s divisive, grandstanding speech. While Abrams is not a working politician at the moment, her frankness and her vision showed viewers that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of her. Not even close.