Assessing the SOTU address

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Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution deals, among other things, with powers of the president vis-à-vis the legislative branch. Thus, the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union." He is empowered to "recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." He may call one or both of the houses of Congress into session on Extraordinary Occasions, and if there is disagreement between the two houses as to the Time of Adjournment he may "adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper."

Section 3 doesn't call for an annual speech by the president to the members of Congress, and most of the earlier SOTU messages were submitted in writing. In person speeches have been in vogue since the Woodrow Wilson era, however, and with evolving technology they have been increasingly directed to the world at large versus just to the members of Congress.

An incoming president's first speech to the joint houses of Congress (2/28/17 in the case of the current president) isn't considered a State of the Union address. The rationale: he (she) hasn't been on the job long enough to be expected to inform the members of Congress on where matters stand. Accordingly, the president's speech to Congress last week will be counted as his first SOTU address. Transcript,
1/30/18.

This speech was reportedly watched by some 45 million viewers, not to mention many more that watched video clips in the extensive post-event coverage. Polling indicates that it was generally well received, although the reported margin of approval was inflated by the party affiliation of Americans who chose to tune in (see table below). Viewers approve of Trump's first State of the Union address, CBS News Poll,
1/30/18.

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SAFE members typically agreed with the majority of Americans re the political merits of the SOTU, as was evidenced by a SAFE board meeting discussion on February 1. Thanks to all participants for your insights.

It was also concluded, however, that the speech fuzzed over some major problems and didn't present much in the way of solutions.

The following discussion will attempt to reconcile these perspectives and offer an overall assessment.

I. Political view- The SAFE consensus is that the SOTU was an effective political speech, which resonated with the general public and put the current minority party on the defensive (a role Democrats are unaccustomed to playing and don't handle very well). The president has a knack for connecting with people, and in this speech he presented a series of ideas that would not only energize his base but also appeal to many others.

A major theme was that the US economy is back on track as the result of concerted efforts to streamline regulations, support US manufacturing operations, and most recently cut taxes. The purported results: robust job creation, a pickup in employee pay, manufacturing jobs coming back to the US, and a booming stock market. And now this trend has been set in motion, "there has never been a better time to start living the American dream."

So to every citizen watching at home tonight -- no matter where you've been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can [decide] what kind of future we are going to have, and what kind of nation we are going to be. All of us, together, as one team, one people, and one American family. We all share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag. Together, we are rediscovering the American Way. In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life.

It's natural to honor our veterans and the national flag. We want to make smarter trade deals, rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure, and effectively curb illegal immigration, which threatens the interests of US citizens. As for external threats from terrorist regimes and would-be adversaries, it's essential to recognize that weakness is the surest path to conflict and the only solution is to maintain unmatched military power.

Woven into the speech's fabric were stories of guests of the presidential party, who were sitting with or in the vicinity of the first lady and other Trump family members. Such an approach is hardly novel, but the president used it liberally to associate individual people with points that he wanted to make.

COAST GUARD PETTY OFFICER ASHLEE LEPPERT (helicopter rescue missions in Hurricane Harvey); fire fighter DAVID DAHLBERG (rescued about 60 children trapped by a California wildfire); STEVE STAUB & SANDY KEPLINGER (granted raises and hired more employees at their small manufacturing business, thanks to the tax cut) and welder COREY ADAMS (one of their employees, who has big plans for investing his raise); PRESTON SHARP (a 12-year-old boy) who noticed that veterans' graves were not marked with flags on Veteran's Day and started a movement that has now placed 40,000 flags at the graves of our great heroes; Four parents of two teenage girls - KAYLA CUEVAS & NEESA MICKENS - who were murdered by six members of the MS-13 gang (many members of this gang "took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors"); ICE AGENT CELESTINO MARTINEZ who has spent the last 15 years fighting gang violence and getting dangerous criminals off our streets and commanded an operation that has arrested nearly 400 gang members on Long Island including more than 220 from MS-13; POLICE OFFICER RYAN HOLETS and his wife REBECCA, who adopted the baby of a pregnant homeless women Ryan saw preparing to inject heroin; ARMY STAFF SERGEANT JUSTIN PECK, who heroically saved the life of a comrade severely wounded by an IED while they were on a mission near Raqqa, Syria to clear buildings that ISIS had rigged with explosives; the parents, brother and sister of OTTO WARMBIER, who was arrested while on a tour in North Korea, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for alleged crimes against the state [attempted theft of a propaganda poster], and was later returned to the US on the verge of death (dying days after his return); MR. JI SUNG-HO escaped from North Korea after enduring almost unimaginable horrors, including multiple amputations without anesthetics after a train ran over his limbs, torture by the North Korean authorities, and traveling on crutches for thousands of miles across China and Southeast Asia to reach freedom (Sung-ho has a new leg now, but he keeps the crutches as a reminder and dramatically raised them above his head after being introduced).

Democrats' reactions during and after the speech were largely negative, which may not serve them well. The night the Democratic Party committed political suicide, Wayne Allyn Root, townhall.com,
2/1/18.

Democrats were outed as the party that is rooting for America's failure. Rooting against a booming economy. Rooting for misery, instead of prosperity. *** They openly frowned, grimaced, groaned and looked sick to their stomachs when President Trump celebrated the American flag…the national anthem… American freedom… and American opportunity. *** Amnesty-loving Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez WALKED OUT upon hearing chants of "USA, USA!" It was too much for him. He appeared to be on the verge of tears.

Meanwhile, the outlook for Republicans appears to be looking up. This is important because the administration's agenda will be blocked, ensuring renewed political gridlock, if Democrats win control of one or both houses of Congress in November. Weekly Trump report card: Trump "shows heart and optimism," Paul Bedard, Washington Examiner,
2/3/18.

This week's White House Report Card finds President Trump in a commanding position after his State of the Union address, new projections for a healthy economy, and a positive poll for midterm election Republicans. [The 2018 congressional generic ballot has now shifted from a 17-point lead for the Democrats to just a 2-point lead, according to a new Monmouth College Poll.]

2. Policy view - Did the president's speech convey the true state of the union or paint a rosy picture while glossing over serious problems? The realistic answer is clearly "the latter."

Consider the rhetoric about Americans being "one team, one people," who "share the same home, the same heart, the same destiny, and the same great American flag." If so, why are our political leaders almost constantly at each other's throats, and why are their respective political bases equally far apart (with independents somewhere in the middle)?

Or take the fiscal problem, which boils down to whether the government is going to start budgeting responsibly or will keep spending beyond its means until the roof caves in. The president has expressed concern about debt on other occasions, notably in his initial speech to Congress. Glow of upbeat presidential address fades quickly,
3/6/17.

The president did acknowledge the fiscal problem in his speech, but only as though viewing it through the rearview mirror - "In the last 8 years, the past Administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other Presidents combined" - and without offering any convincing solutions.

The fiscal problem didn't come up last week. There was no mention in the SOTU address of deficits (aside from a purported infrastructure deficit), the need for spending cuts, or the $20.5 trillion debt limit (which must soon be abolished, suspended, or increased to keep the government running).

Also left unsaid was that that the appropriation bills for fiscal year 2018 (the true budget) were 4 months late and counting, with the possibility of another government shutdown on February 8 (at this point, most observers expect that Congress will avert a shutdown by passing another short-term continuing resolution).

The president did urge Congress to "end the dangerous defense sequester [spending caps] and fully fund our great military," but he didn't explain that this step has been repeatedly delayed due to pressure for equal or greater increases in non-defense spending. Although the delays are generally attributed to the current minority party, some Republicans may be complicit. Indeed, the president included another plug for Paid Family Leave (a new federal entitlement program favored by Ivanka Trump among others) in his SOTU address.

As tax cuts create new jobs, let's invest in workforce development and job-training. Let's open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential. And let's support working families by supporting Paid Family Leave.

There was also no preview of the president's budget proposal for FY 2019, which by law was due to be sent to Congress by February 5 but will be held up because the budget process for FY 2018 is running so late. New Trump budget will be utterly worthless, Stan Collender, forbes.com,
1/28/18.

. . . the Trump 2019 budget will be inaccurate and irrelevant to a Congress that's very likely not going to use whatever the president proposes as a basis for its own decisions. That will make the Trump 2019 budget the economic equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping.

Viewing the SOTU address from another angle, does it offer worthwhile policy proposals for consideration by Congress? Here are the president's suggestions with our thoughts in contrasting font.

#DACA FIX - The president's immigration reform plan has four parts, all of which had been previously announced: (1) A path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants, who were brought the US by their parents at a young age (aka dreamers). "Under our plan, those who meet education and work requirements, and show good moral character, will be able to become full citizens of the United States." (2) Measures for better securing the border, to including an ironclad guarantee of $25 billion in funding to build a wall on the southern border, hire more border agents, and abolish the practice of Catch-and-Release; (3) End the visa lottery programs, which "randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of our people," and "begin moving towards a "merit-based immigration system" designed to serve US interests as opposed to being primarily geared to the desires of would-be immigrants; and (4) Protect the "nuclear family" (spouses and children) while ending "chain migration" (granting admission based on other family relationships, e.g., grandparents, aunts & uncles, cousins, etc.).

The president pitched his plan as reflecting extensive meetings "with both Democrats and Republicans to craft a bipartisan approach to immigration reform." It was, he said, "a detailed proposal that should be supported by both parties as a fair compromise -- one where nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs."

Critics have slammed this proposal as racist, etc. Their reasoning is open to question, but a deal doesn't look likely any time soon. The Democratic betrayal of the Dreamers, Washington Times,
1/30/18.

Logically, and realistically, the Democrats and their allies, who dream of an America without borders, should have leapt at the offer. But logic and realism have no place in the immigration debate. A spokesman for Mrs. Pelosi . . . calls Mr. Trump's offer a "ransom" in pursuit of an "anti-immigrant wish list."

#INFRASTRUCTUE - "I am calling on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion dollars for the new infrastructure investment we need. Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment -- to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit. Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process -- getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one. Together, we can reclaim our building heritage."
Maybe additional infrastructure spending is needed, maybe not, but putting Congress in charge of designing the program would be a big mistake.

#FIRING FEDERAL EMPLOYEES - Under the "landmark VA Accountability Act," the current administration is said to have "removed more than 1,500 VA employees [sounds high!] who failed to give our veterans the care they deserve." The president now urges Congress "to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers -- and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American People."
Worth considering.

#ACCESS TO EXPERIMENTAL TREATMENTS - "People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure -- I want to give them a chance right here at home. It's time for Congress to give these wonderful Americans the Right to Try."
Fine, so long as the government isn't paying the bills, but this hardly seems like the top priority for overhauling the government's massive and costly healthcare programs.

#GUANTANAMO - I am also asking Congress to ensure that in the fight against ISIS and Al Qaeda we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists -- wherever we chase them down.
We're agnostic about this idea.

#FOREIGN AID - I am asking Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America's friends.
Not clear what's involved here.

#IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL - I am asking Congress to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal.
Congress never approved the IND in the first place, and the ball is in the administration's court on this issue.

#VOCATIONAL SCHOOLS & PAID FAMILY LEAVE - See previous discussion.
The federal government needs to overhaul its existing entitlement programs, not create new ones like Paid Family Leave.

#DEFENSE BUDGET - See previous discussion.
Increased defense spending is probably necessary, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse to raise non-defense spending as well.

3. Synthesis - If we're right that the SOTU address was effective from a political standpoint but provided little guidance on policy issues, should it be viewed as a success or a failure?

Realistically, said one SAFE director, the president needs to reach out to the general public in the SOTU address and Americans vote based on their perceived economic circumstances versus an informed view of the issues. Using this event to present a thoughtful policy agenda, therefore, wouldn't make much sense.

Another director suggested that voters consider non-economic issues as well, notably whether a given party or candidate supports the political faction(s) with which they identify. See, e.g., Democracy for realists; Why elections do not produce responsive government, Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels, Princeton University Press,
2016.

Either way, Americans don't tune in to the SOTU address with the objective of hearing about policy issues (which are typically only deemed interesting by people who feel directly and personally affected). Desires to be entertained and/or moved emotionally probably have a lot more impact.

The best imaginable speech about policy matters would fall flat if 95% of the viewers stopped watching, and it's clear that most Americans are not very energized about the fiscal problem. They will probably turn on the nation's political leaders in a fury ("why didn't you tell us this was going to happen?") if there is a fiscal meltdown or other catastrophe, but in the meantime other issues are uppermost in their minds.

CONCLUSION: The president deserves high marks for his first SOTU address, which left many important things unsaid but at least was politically engaging. If he aspires to get Congress to face up to the fiscal problem, reform entitlement programs, etc., these goals will need to be tackled in a different way.

**********FEEDBACK**********

#And, what are we going to cut?? - SAFE director

Comment: All SAFE can do is recommend, but in general the goal is to cut wasteful government spending (benefit doesn't realistically cover the cost), eliminate regulatory "red tape," and restructure entitlement programs so they will be affordable over the long haul. See, e.g., the Spending (budget discipline) page on our website.

#And what does SAFE believe is the long-term answer... and how to get there? - SAFE member (DE)

Comment: SAFE's answer is "smaller, more focused, less costly government." However, the opposition doesn't agree, and we can't guarantee what the outcome will be. One school of thought is that the decline of our political system and transformation of our economy has gone too far to be reversed without a huge crisis, and if this proves to be true the United States may suffer an ignominious fate (like other leading powers before it). See, e.g., The generational divide: two takes on the fiscal problem, 9/2/10.

#I believe the SAFE board has made a perfect assessment of the SOTU speech (reference is to a recap of the directors' discussion of this subject, which was elaborated on in the blog entry). - SAFE member (DE)

#As usual you are the voice of reason! - College classmate (SC)

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