On Tuesday, Jan. 30, President Donald Trump will deliver his first ever State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress and the nation. But while the camera will be focused on the presidential podium, Trump is hardly the only person the country will be watching on the big night. The opposing party will also have a chance to respond to the president's speech, and who does the response to the State of the Union each year is just as important. Already, names and speculations are floating around about that rebuttal.
The SOTU address is an annual tradition carried out by the sitting president to bring Congress up to speed on the state of affairs. In recent decades, it's gradually become a larger event beyond the D.C. political realm, widely viewed on television. Presidents often use their time on the floor to recognize the accomplishments of the previous year and articulate their policy priorities in the year to come. Last year, outgoing President Barack Obama gave a farewell address, while the incoming President Trump gave his first address to Congress (not formally the SOTU).
What is the response?
After the president gives his address, one or more members of the opposing party (chosen ahead of time) deliver a formal response, generally televised. The tradition began in 1966 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to the U.S. Senate, and has varied in format from lengthy speeches to interviews with a panel and everything in between.
The person chosen to give the response isn't necessarily a member of Congress, but it's usually someone politically prominent or otherwise important. Serious DC players — even presidential hopefuls — tend to give the response. In 2013, for example, before he ran for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave the response to President Barack Obama's address. Well, he gave most of it, anyways, minus a quick water break.
Who's giving the response this year?
The Democrat chosen to give the 2018 response is 37-year-old Representative Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA), the great nephew of late President John F. Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy, and grandson of Robert "Bobby" Kennedy. His family has quite the legacy in politics (and a continuing one at that), so he's got a lot to live up to in his speech on Tuesday.
"From health care to economic justice to civil rights, the Democratic agenda stands in powerful contrast to President Trump’s broken promises to American families," wrote Kennedy III in a Jan. 26 tweet. "Deeply honored to be chosen to deliver the response to the State of the Union next week. Stay tuned for updates!"
It's not the first time Kennedy III will make headlines as an orator. He made some eloquent remarks in defense of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) last spring, saying, "There is no mercy in a system that makes health care a luxury. There is no mercy in a country that turns their back on those most in need of protection: the elderly, the poor, the sick, and the suffering."
And he made another moving speech to fight for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September. "This week, President Trump slammed the door on 800,000 people," he said. "Dreamers, children raised in our neighborhoods, who run on our playgrounds, pitch in our little leagues, who proudly march in Fourth of July parades."
If Tuesday's response is anything like these, we may be in for an emotional roller coaster.
Already, political pundits were praising the choice of speaker.
Some were even predicting that, after Tuesday, Kennedy III's name would be topping the list of potential 2020 contenders.
"Joe Kennedy III is the perfect Democrat to deliver the response to State of the Union address," said Adam Best in a tweet. "The Democratic Party has a bunch of rising stars and shouldn’t squander any opportunity to showcase them."
"He's 37. Rising Dem star... 2020?" wrote Washington Post politics reporter Robert Costa on Twitter.
"Joe Kennedy has been fairly low key as a three-term congressman. Giving the SOTU response is a breakout moment for him," wrote Matt Viser, Washintgon bureau chief for the Boston Globe.
Whatever Kennedy III ends up saying in this year's response, it will run the risk of competing for viewers' attention. Also coming right after the president's address is an interview with Stormy Daniels on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. But as his name is already drawing attention well before the big day, Kennedy III's response is not something to miss.