Call for unity in SOTU; don't hold your breath

Reader feedback at end

Politically, the president’s State of the Union address was a winner. He hit notes that were popular with his political base, and others that would probably appeal to both parties. A bevy of well-selected guests were introduced and acknowledged. And the overall theme – “I ask you to choose greatness” over political gridlock - was sounded early and reprised near the end as though there could be no doubt as to the response. Not a word about the possibility that Americans might need to temper their aspirations in some areas in order to succeed in others. SOTU transcript, 2/5/19.

Suggestions that the president should deliver a speech that was down to earth and relatively short (see last week’s blog entry) were ignored. The government shutdown and other recent controversies weren’t mentioned; there were only passing references to mistakes that should be avoided in order to keep moving ahead.
Ibid.

•We must reject “the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution.”

•We must avoid “foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations.”


Although the pace of delivery never faltered, except for interruptions for applause and a bit of “USA-USA” chanting, the speech ran longer than the norm. Trump’s 2019 [SOTU] address was the longest [82 minutes] since Clinton’s in 2000 [89 minutes], John Gage, Washington Examiner,
1/5/19.

Polling indicates that the SOTU achieved high viewership ratings and the majority of Americans liked what they heard. 76 percent approved of Trump’s [SOTU], Katelyn Caralle, Washington Examiner,
2/6/19.

When broken down by party, almost all Republicans, 97 percent, said they approved of Trump’s speech, and 82 percent of independents said the same. Only 30 percent of Democrats, however, say they approved.

Bear in mind, however, that (1) a higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats tuned in, and (2) approval ratings were skewed along party lines. Also, a majority of respondents doubted that Trump’s call for unity would have much impact.
Ibid.

. . . only 56 percent felt that the speech helped to unite the country, and just 33 percent said they think Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will work more closely together after the speech.

Here’s another reference point: Despite the rise of the tea party movement and big GOP gains in the 2010 mid-terms, President Obama scored even higher public approval numbers for his 2011 SOTU address, Polls: Public reaction to the State of the Union mainly positive, Peyton Craighill, Washington Post,
1/26/11.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll found 84 percent of speech-watchers reacted positively to his message, 52 percent very positively. A CBS News poll found 91 percent of watchers approve of the proposals the president made.

Audience ratings aside, did Trump’s SOTU address hit the mark? The Constitution (Article II, Section III) provides that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall deem necessary and expedient.” But the SOTU seems to have evolved into an evening of political posturing and entertainment, which probably isn’t what the founders had in mind.

Focusing on substance, here’s our take on what we heard.

A. Illegal immigration – The president again made his case on the need for border barrier (aka wall) construction, insisting that the situation along the southern border was assuredly a crisis – with harmful effects for both US residents, especially workers whose personal safety, property and economic status were not receiving special protection, and would-be immigrants who were being endangered and exploited - and that he intended to do the necessary. Others had supported border barriers in the past, but “the wall never got built. I will get it built.”

This was not to condemn immigration per se, but simply to say illegal immigration should not be tolerated. “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” However, no ideas for comprehensive immigration reform – starting with providing assured legal status for the so-called “dreamers” who had been brought into the country illegally as children – were discussed.

Mr. Trump put to rest the notion that the proposal was to build “a simple concrete wall,” or that he was relying primarily on his own instincts as to what facilities were needed. This would be “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier,” which would be “deployed in the areas identified by the border agents as having the greatest need. And these agents will tell you: Where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down.”

The cost of the proposed border barriers was not mentioned, nor the president’s previously issued threat that he would declare a national emergency if necessary in order to get these facilities constructed. It was made clear, however, that Congress was negotiating on the issue and had 10 days left to pass a bill that would address it. “So let’s work together, compromise, and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.”

In short, having gotten the worst of the government shutdown and border barrier controversy, the president appeared to be seeking a face-saving compromise to put the border security issue to rest for the time being And talks aimed at achieving such an outcome ramped up in ensuing days, including over the weekend at Camp David, but at last report it wasn’t clear how they would turn out.

Not only was the amount of funding at issue, but also a Democratic push to reduce the number of detention beds – which would effectively force ICE to release some of the illegal immigrants they have apprehended into the US population. And Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney refused to rule out another government shutdown, effectively denying that the president would sign any bill that was put in front of him. Richard Shelby on border deal: “Talks are stalled right now,” Melissa Quinn, Washington Examiner,
2/10/19.

B. Healthcare – Credit was claimed for repealing “the very unpopular Obamacare individual mandate penalty,” and enacting the Right to Try Act that was giving critically ill patients access to lifesaving cures.

Looking forward, it was suggested that both parties had an interest in supporting lower prices for healthcare and prescription drugs, and in protecting patients with preexisting conditions. However, few specifics were offered as to how these goals might be achieved.

It's all very well to complain that Americans pay more for their drugs than patients in other countries, a situation that the president referred to as “global freeloading,” but it may be difficult if not impossible “to stop it fast.” Some of the fixes to the problem that have been suggested, such as the administration’s proposal of an International Pricing Index, would effectively import the price control schemes of other nations.

Perhaps that is an idea on which Republicans and Democrats could agree, but price controls have nasty side effects and the results would predictably be counterproductive. Trump’s plan to lower drug prices is the wrong prescription, Charles Sauer, townhall.com, 2/8/19.

Other healthcare ideas that were mentioned may seem appealing, but providing more research dollars for HIV and childhood cancer couldn’t be expected to lower healthcare prices except for patients whose treatments were being subsidized.

C. Infrastructure – Another area suggested for bipartisan action was infrastructure programs, but no specifics were provided as to types of projects, cost, financing, etc.

I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future.

The president also neglected to suggest that Democrats might be expected to offer a quid pro quo of some kind. Why is the onus for bipartisanship always placed on the GOP?

D. Energy policy – The president pointed to regulatory rollbacks, which had played a part in a US energy renaissance. This country is “now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world,” and, “for the first time in 65 years . . . a net exporter of energy.”

Nothing was said, however, about the global warming (aka climate change) controversy that could – depending on how it is resolved – undo all the energy sector gains over the past decade and more. Some environmentalists are hoping to get their goals built into government infrastructure programs, while others want to sharply reduce carbon emissions by curbing the use of fossil fuels, e.g., by adopting the Green New Deal advocated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) et al. Greens grasp for silver lining in Trump’s infrastructure pitch, John Siciliano, Washington Examiner,
2/5/19.

Although the president is on record as being a global warming skeptic, he didn’t choose to discuss this alleged threat in his comments on the state of the union. Rightly or wrongly, opposition to the manmade global warming theory is not a political winner – unless people conclude that they would have to bear the costs of fighting global warming personally. Most Americans want action on climate change, John Harwood, cnbc.com,
12/17/18.

Overall, 66 percent of Americans now say they've seen enough evidence to justify action, up from 51 percent two decades ago. *** Resistance comes only from the one-third of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans. A 56 percent majority of the GOP says either that concern about climate change is unwarranted or that more research is necessary before taking action.

The president did raise the issue indirectly, however, by expressing alarm about “the new calls to adopt Socialism in our country.” He was presumably referring to the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and other proposals that would massively increase the government role in the economy while undermining private enterprise. Socialism hasn’t worked anywhere else, as most recently shown in Venezuela, and Mr. Trump declared that “America will never be a socialist country.”

E. Fiscal problem – There was no explicit discussion in the SOTU address of government deficits (running about $1 trillion per year) or debt (about $22 trillion and climbing); it’s as though such results were perfectly normal. The reason, we suppose, is that the American public isn’t much concerned about deficits and debt at present, so it’s not politically advantageous to bring the subject up.

Most observers didn’t see fit to comment on the omission, but here’s one exception: Trump ignores biggest threat to American greatness in the State of the Union: Looming debt crisis, Philip Klein, Washington Examiner,
2/5/19.

Instead of addressing this national emergency, Trump offered more of the same. He boasted of cutting taxes and increasing military spending, while pushing for more spending on infrastructure. At no point did he mention the urgent need to reform Medicare and Social Security.

To this we would add that the president plugged a brand new federal entitlement program, paid family leave, which is also believed to be favored by Democrats. And he bragged about rising revenue from tariffs as though these levies were paid by the other parties concerned, when they are actually paid by American consumers (partially offsetting the much-vaunted tax cuts that took effect in 2018).

. . . we recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods, and now our Treasury is receiving billions and billions of dollars.

Given the manner in which the president has positioned himself on budget issues, how can anyone believe the government is being run in a fiscally responsible manner?

F. Economy – A victory lap was taken for an “economic miracle.” Millions of jobs created, including “600,000 new manufacturing jobs” – unemployment at the lowest rate in half a century - wages rising “at the fastest rate in decades” – nearly 5 million Americans lifted off food stamps – the US economy growing “almost twice as fast now as when I took office.” In short, “we are considered, far and away, the hottest economy anywhere in the world. Not even close.”

Actually, US economic growth for the full year 2018 is expected to come in at around 3% (far from a record) and many economists expect slowing growth in the future. What policies were proposed to keep the economy humming?

Here the president highlighted international trade policy, which could supposedly protect American jobs and end decades of allowing other nations to take advantage of us. He cited the pending trade talks with China, which as matters stand have resulted in the aforementioned increase in tariffs on $250 billon of Chinese goods, the renegotiation of NAFTA (now named the US-Mexico-Canada or “USMCA” trade agreement), and the proposed enactment of a Reciprocal Trade Act that could give the administration more power to unilaterally impose tariffs in future trade disputes.

It remains to be seen whether the president will be successful in renegotiating our trading relations with China, although he deserves credit for trying, but if the tariff increases remain in place or are added to the results will not be beneficial to either the global or US economy.

The USMCA agreement is not a big improvement over NAFTA, but probably won’t do a great deal of harm. It’s worrisome, however, that (1) the Democratic members of Congress may not see fit to support the new agreement, while (2) the president is threatening to give 180 days’ notice to terminate NAFTA. In a worst case scenario, there could be serious disruption of US patterns of trade with its two neighbors, to the economic detriment of all concerned.

SAFE joined in a
2/4/19 coalition letter (spearheaded by the National Taxpayers Union) opposing the Reciprocal Trade Agreement on grounds that Congress should exercise effectives control over international trade policy, i.e., the executive branch should negotiate trade agreements and submit them for approval.

Bottom line, we applaud the administration for pruning burdensome regulations, are supportive of the tax cuts that were enacted (although some opportunities for tax reform were squandered in the process), and view the thrust of the president’s international trade policies (with the exception of attempting of trying to deter Chinese theft of US intellectual property) with trepidation. The net results of his policies will hardly qualify as an “economic miracle.”

G. Military capabilities, threats – The president pointed to a sharp increase in funding for the US military, plus success in getting allies to “pay their fair share.” Among other things, investments are being made in “a state-of-the-art missile defense system.” Some highlights of US relations with potentially hostile powers were cited.

#RUSSIA – The US has formally withdrawn from the decades-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia due to repeated Russian violations of the terms. Maybe it will be possible to negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, but if not “we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”

#CHINA – Aside from pending trade negotiations, nothing was said about this country’s most powerful rival, e.g., tensions in the South China Sea and potential threats to Taiwan.

#NORTH KOREA – The “historic push for peace on the Korean peninsula” continues. US hostages have come home – NK nuclear tests and missile launches have stopped – “my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one” – next meeting will be on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam.

#VENEZUELA – Having recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate president, the US “stand[s] with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom” and “condemn[s] the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.” The president went on, as previously stated, to condemn calls for socialist policies in this country.

#MIDDLE EAST – US troops have been fighting in the area for almost 19 years, with nearly 7,000 American casualties and more than $7 trillion down the drain. Great powers do not fight endless wars. I promised a new approach as a candidate, and have been working to deliver one that is based on “principled realism” vs. “discredited theories.”

ISIS held some 20,000 square miles of territory in January 2017; today it’s practically zero. Now, “as we work with our allies to destroy the remnants of ISIS, it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”

Efforts to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan have been accelerated, with the objective of reducing the US presence and focusing on counterterrorism [as distinguished from trying to shore up an unstable Afghan government].

As a reminder to all of this country’s power and will to defend its people, our forces recently located and killed one of the leaders of terrorists that attacked a US Navy destroyer 18 years ago. We will always remember the heroes of the USS Cole.

Under a radical regime, Iran has been “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.” And the administration has been decisively moving to confront them. Withdrew from the “disastrous Iran nuclear deal” – imposed “the toughest sanctions ever imposed by us on a country” – will not ignore a regime that chants “Death to America” and threatens genocide against the Jewish people – recognize and reject anti-Semitism wherever it may occur, from the Nazi death camps during World War II to the murderous attack on a synagogue that recently occurred in Pittsburgh.

The administration doesn’t have all the answers to international threats, of course, but this portion of the speech seemed thoughtful and well balanced.

* * * * *

If the SOTU was supposed to provide Congress and others with a realistic assessment of this country’s status and prospects, it fell woefully short in most areas (the exceptions being border barriers and international threats). But if viewed as the kick-off speech for the president’s re-election campaign, it represented a good effort. Trump goes big, uses delayed [SOTU] to make case on border, much more, Byron York, Washington Examiner, 2/6/19.

The speech was big, not just in length — about 80 minutes — but also in concept. It had a structure. It had a message. It had passages to appeal to all Americans. It had passages to appeal to Trump's conservative base. And it had passages to appeal to opposition Democrats, who otherwise hated nearly every word of it.

As of last Friday, according to the Rasmussen
daily tracking poll, the president’s approval rating was 50%.

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

This week’s cover note concluded with a question – any ideas to combat delusional schemes such as the Green New Deal or Medicare for All and get Americans back on the right page (“smaller, more focused, less costly government”). Here were some reader responses:

#What have you given us a woman asked Benjamin Franklin as the Constitutional Convention was ending. “A republic,” he said, “if you can keep it.” To that end, our schools should be required to provide true education vs. political indoctrination, with emphasis on how to think and analyze issues, and on the study of American History as free from political correctness as possible. – SAFE member (DE).

#I’m not very optimistic. Expect more spending, more debt and the importation of criminals and poverty into the US to support the far left. – SAFE director

#Well said! The only way I know to "get Americans on the right page" is to throw the extremists out of office. – Retired judge

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