President Donald Trump gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress. It was about an hour long. I did not watch the performance, which according to the Washington Post, “won high marks for his muscular but measured tone.” Others say he was as Presidential looking and sounding as they have ever seen him.
I offer a point-by-point replay of the speech, which is based on the transcript, along with my own commentary. I make no claim to objectivity here. You will find my own assessment of the speech as a whole at the end of the post.
The President began, as Presidents often do, with some hyperbolic rhetoric about such things as “a new national pride … sweeping across the Nation.” He followed with a list he things he plans to do. There was nothing new here, it could have come straight out of his campaign speeches.
He move next to some examples of progress he has made in his first month in office, and here we run into some problems with honesty and with his lack of understanding of the things he is talking about, which I call out.
- Jobs. He took credit for several companies bringing jobs back to America. He shouldn’t have. In every case these were already in the pipeline long before he assumed office.
- The Stock Market. He took credit for the stock market’s recent strong growth. He shouldn’t have. The stock market’s current growth is a continuation of a trend that was already well underway before he assumed office. Trump starts his Presidency with a strong economy.
- F-35 Jet Fighter. He took credit for negotiating down the cost of the F-35 jet fighter program. He shouldn’t have. These costs had already been negotiated by the Obama administration; Trump had nothing to do with it.
- Hiring Freeze. He took credit for a hiring freeze on non-military, non-essential federal jobs. He can indeed take credit for that. Whether it is a good thing or not depends on your point of view. The Veteran Affairs administration, for example, is desperately short on staff and medical professionals. A freeze on their hiring is going to hurt veterans. What was needed was a targeted freeze, not a broad brush sweep.
- Ban on Lobbying. He took credit for imposing a five-year ban on lobbying by executive branch officials, which he did indeed do by Executive Order. Whether he actually has the authority to enforce it is a different question. He will probably need Congress to provide appropriate legislation.
- Reducing “job-crushing” regulations. He took credit for ordering reductions in “job-crushing” regulations. His order doesn’t actually reduce regulations; it calls for a study of what regulations should be killed. To actually kill regulations, he will need Congress’ help. There is also small reason to think this will make a significant difference to the job market. There is no known correlation between regulations and jobs, notwithstanding a steady supply of propaganda to the contrary.
- Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines. He took credit for clearing the way for construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, which is true; he did this by Executive Order. But then he went on to claim that he thereby created tens of thousands of good-paying jobs, which is misleading at best. There will be some new jobs in the short term, and over the long run the pipelines will employ about 3500 people.
- Trans-Pacific Partnership. He took credit for pulling us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Fair enough. However, his claim that it would have been a job-killer is misleading at best, outright untrue at worst. Trump has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of understanding about how trade works in the 21st Century, and that showed up here, as it also does later in the speech.
Somewhere in here, Trump turned from promises fulfilled to promises still be to fulfilled, although the dividing line was not clear. I chose to make it here.
Promises still to fulfilled:
- Task Force On Reducing Violent Crime. He has directed the Department of Justice to form a task force on reducing violent crime. This comes from one of the many false beliefs Trump continues to hold in the face of all evidence to the contrary. He claims that violent crime is at its highest level in 45 years. This is not true. Violent crime is actually at its lowest level in 45 years. So he has instructed the Department of Justice to come up with a solution for a problem that exists only in his mind.
- Criminal Cartels. He has directed the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, along with the Department of State and the director of national intelligence, “to coordinate an aggressive strategy to dismantle the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation.” It is not clear what he is talking about on this one. We have been fighting criminal cartels (like the Mafia, the drug lords) for a century. We already have multiple robust strategies in place to do exactly this. But I guess another study won’t hurt.
- Drugs. He said he will stop drugs from “pouring into our country and poisoning our youth.” This shows an astonishing lack of understanding about the nature of drug addiction in America today. We are facing today an epidemic of heroin addiction among adult middle class whites (many of whom voted for Trump in part for this very reason) via the gateway of legal opioids. Trump does not understand that the problem is not at our borders; it is in our homes. This will lead him to push for programs and strategies that do not actually address the problem.
- The Wall vs. Crime. He mentioned the Wall, and suggested that it will be “a very effective weapon against drugs and crime,” again demonstrating a lack of understanding of how illegal drugs enter our country and what are the main sources of crime. In the same context, he mentions removing (from the country) gang members, drug dealers, etc. Again, a failure to understand the problem. Illegal immigrants are only tangentially related to gangs and drugs, and removing all of them would not make a significant dent in the problem. He also suggests that keeping illegal immigrants out of the country will “raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.” This is another persistent belief Trump holds that is contradicted by the facts.
- Defending the borders. He claimed that loss of jobs, income and loved ones is a result of America not defending its borders. Once again, he substitutes myths for facts. The impact of illegal immigrants on the job market is pretty much a wash. Nor does the presence of illegal immigrants depress wages. (Wages are indeed artificially depressed, but not because of illegal immigrants.) Crime in communities with large illegal immigrant populations is significantly lower than crime in other comparable communities, for the obvious reasons that illegal immigrants try to maintain a low profile.
- Vetting legal immigrants. He says that his administration has been working on improving vetting procedures for legal immigrants. We already have a very robust vetting process, and nowhere in his speech did he suggest how it might be improved. But I suppose there is always room for improvement.
- ISIS. He has directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS. It is not clear what he has in mind here. The DoD is already executing such a plan, with the result that ISIS is in full retreat and will probably soon cease to be a meaningful threat. Maybe he hasn’t talked to his generals about it yet, so doesn’t know what they are already doing, but the implication is that our military has no clue what it’s doing.
- Iran Sanctions. He has imposed new sanctions of Iran due to its recent ballistic missile tests. Whether that was a good idea or not depends on your point of view. It may be the beginning of unraveling the 6-nation agreement with Iran regarding their nuclear weapons aspirations, which will free Iran up to continue developing a deliverable nuclear capability. At that point, it is not at all clear how we would stop them.
- Supreme Court Nominee. He has kept his promise to appoint a Supreme Court justice who will defend our Constitution. Whether Senate Democrats will let him be confirmed, or will instead employ the same “Party of No” strategy that Senate Republicans used under Obama, remains to be seen.
- Job Loses. He talked about job loss, but used the wrong labor statistics. He used labor statistics that include college students, self-employed people, retirees, greatly exaggerating the numbers. Somebody in the White House needs to do their homework. Statistically, unemployment has returned to it’s pre-recession levels. We do have a problem with the kinds of jobs available, but that is an entirely different problem than the one Trump is addressing. I wish he had addressed that instead. I have heard nothing from Trump that would lead me to believe that he has any understanding of the market forces that have taken away high-paying jobs in exchange for low-paying jobs.
- Jobs Going Overseas. He tied job loss to jobs being shipped overseas. About 70% of those job losses did not go overseas; they simply disappeared from the job landscape, due mainly to automation. Those jobs will never come back. The government produces a quarterly Productivity Index report that supposedly shows how “productive” American workers are. When it says, for example, that American productivity increased by, say, 2.1%, what you are really hearing is the sound of jobs disappearing from the economy because of improvements in efficiency and automation. When the Productivity Index goes up, it means the same amount of work is being done by fewer workers. Trump simply doesn’t understand the nature of the changes to our economy over the last 2 decades.
- Individual Taxes. He mentioned “massive tax relief,” including for the middle class. His own proposals so far, such as they are, do not accomplish that that. Nor does the plan making its way through Congress. They provide massive tax cuts for the very wealthy, and offer little or nothing for the rest of us. Bush did this, and it was a major contributor to the Great Recession (although not the only contributor). The state of Kansas did this, and their economy tanked so badly that the Republican controlled legislature is now fighting with the governor to undo it. What both Trump and Congress are proposing is nothing more than trickle-down economics, which has proven itself repeatedly to be, as George H. W. Bush once said, “voodoo” economics. Another problem with massive tax cuts to the wealthy is that it will create a comparably massive budget deficit, which means a comparable increase in the national debt. Increases in the debt are a hidden tax on the American people, who have to pay the interest.
- Trade. Trump touched briefly on trade, emphasizing protectionism as his main policy approach. Protectionism has been tried before in our country and has never worked out well. It leads to trade wars, which would be economically devastating for us. It’s also worth noting that protectionist policies are anti-free trade, putting the lie to the President’s assertion earlier in his speech that “I believe in free trade.” Trump’s trade policies are Mercantilist, which puts them back in the 1800’s. He takes a transactional approach in which if one country gains, some other country must have lost by the same amount. There is no win-win in Trump’s world. The real world, on the other hand, has moved far beyond that out-dated view of trade, and thrives on win-win solutions. This is part of what has brought about so much economic growth in the world throughout the 20th Century. Trump simply has no grasp of basic economic principles. This is the kind of stuff you learn in Economics 101 in college. Maybe Trump’s attention kept drifting in that class.
- Corporate Taxes. He plans to reduce the corporate tax rate. This will require action by Congress, but is probably achievable. Whether it’s a good idea depends on your point of view.
- Immigration Reform. He touched briefly on immigration reform, saying, “Protecting our workers also means reforming our system of legal immigration. The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers, and puts great pressure on taxpayers.” This reveals a couple more false beliefs that are not supported by the facts, but at least he is trying to sketch the broad outlines of comprehensive immigration reform, which our country desperately needs.
- Infrastructure. He said he will ask Congress to approve a $1 trillion investment in the nation’s infrastructure. That means highways, bridges, roads, rails, etc. You won’t find any Democrats disagreeing with this one, because it’s a great idea. But it’s not likely to get through a Republican-controlled congress, mainly because he hasn’t provided any way to pay for it, which means it goes into the national debt. Personally, I think it’s a worthwhile investment anyway, but Republicans will have a hard time swallowing the hit to the debt.
- Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Trump called on Congress to repeal and replace the ACA with reforms that (1) expand choice, (2) increase access, (3) lower costs, and (4) provide better health care. Those four goals are exactly the goals the of the ACA. Arguably, the ACA has been only partially successful. If either Trump or Congress can come up with a better plan that accomplishes these goals, I’m all for it. Unfortunately, that is not what we see so far from either the Trump administration or Congress. Trump, contrary to what he has repeatedly claimed, has no replacement plan. Congress has too many replacement plans, and can’t agree among themselves how to do it.
- Bi-partisanship. Trump threw a bone to the Democrats with the suggestion that Democrats and Republicans alike should be able to work together on many of his proposals. So far, the Republican’s in both houses have shut the Democrats out of all discussions about various proposals, so it doesn’t look like there will be much working together. It used to be that Dems and Reps could and did work together on governing, even when they had many disagreements. Ever since Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” that has not been the case.
- FDA and Education. Trump rehearsed his usual ideas about government regulations related to FDA drug approval, and about education. We already know from his selection of DeVos to be Secretary of Education that he intends to create a kind of education apartheid in which the wealthy get to send their kids to the good schools and the rest of us don’t. Regarding the FDA drug approval process, there is a good reason for it being as slow and cumbersome as it is. It saves lives. Having said that, I’m all for a requirement that all regulations have sunset clauses attached, requiring them to be reviewed and renewed periodically.
- Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. He said he has ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an Office of Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. This is so misguided that it would be funny were it were not so tragic. Crime within the illegal immigration community is low relative to the general population. If you are going to try to help victims of crime, at least target the real problem areas, not some make-believe thing about illegal immigrants. This is another case of Trump acting on false beliefs he holds dear.
- Military Build-Up. He is asking Congress to increase the military budget by nearly 10%, which would be the biggest military buildup since the Reagan years. The DoD is not asking for this. Trump has offered no explanation about why we need to do this or what exactly we would be spending that money on. We already spend more on our military than the next 8 countries combined, and our military capabilities are already so massive that nobody out there can offer a meaningful threat. Congress will probably give him something, but not the $54 Billion he is asking for.
- NATO. Contrary to what he said throughout his campaign and early in his Presidency, Trump reaffirmed his support for NATO. It will probably take more than words to convince our allies that we are a reliable ally after all that Trump has said to the contrary.
- Allies. He said, “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict.” This has been our policy for a generation. Nobody is going to argue with it. Except possibly Steve Bannon, who has made a career out of saying pretty much the opposite.
Trump ended with a call for unity. “The time for trivial fights is behind us.” I sure hope so. Trump has so far shown himself as a person who revels in trivial fights (usually via Twitter) and in dividing people so he can play them against each other. That might be a good strategy for a business, but not for a country. It’s as though he can’t let even the smallest slight go by without launching into full attack mode. I think everyone would be thrilled to death if he would stop being so thin-skinned, and get on with the job. He has a long, long way to go if he wants to unify the nation. So far he has divided the nation as it has never been divided before.
Michael’s Opinion: This speech was a grab-bag of vague ideas and wishes utterly lacking in anything resembling vision or comprehensive policy or even direction for Congress. One example: He offered no explanation as to why we need a 10% military build-up or what we would be spending that $54 billion on. If you go through the list again, you will see that almost the entire list is like that. It’s like eating cotton candy. There’s no substance to it.
This is, of course, normal for Trump. He has no over-arching political philosophy or ideology. He has no discernable moral compass. He has no coherent foreign policy or domestic policy. In his speech, he produced a lot of words without actually say anything of substance. For example, do we know what he wants the Obamacare replacement to look like? Not really, although this was the one item he almost got specific on. Do we know why we should support a massive military build-up? Not from this speech. Do we know who the winners and losers are in the tax reform he wants? Not a clue. Do we know how he’s going to pay for a $1 trillion infrastructure program? Nothing on that.
If you ask what the specific take-aways were from this speech, the only one I got was an astonishing absence of leadership. Leaders say, “This is where I’m going. Follow me.” Donald Trump demonstrated that he has no idea where he is going.