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Trump at the crossroads

Where does the president’s State of the Union speech lead?

Lesley Russell 7 February 2019

The road not taken: Donald Trump after he delivered the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington yesterday. Oliver Contreras/Sipa USA

Donald Trump’s appearance in the House of Representatives for his delayed State of the Union speech came at a crossroads in his presidency. The deadline for solving the Mexican wall crisis, entirely of his own manufacture, is looming; he is publicly at odds with his intelligence chiefs over threats from within and without; the Mueller investigation is closing in; his poll numbers remain underwater; the Democrats control the House; speaker Nancy Pelosi has his measure; and the race for the presidency in 2020 has already kicked off.

Previous presidents faced with falling poll numbers have been either optimistic (Obama) or conciliatory (Clinton), but neither of these stances sits comfortably with Trump’s persona. So we saw a man divided by his instincts, a man trying to be all things to all people, who took wise-cracking Yogi Berra’s advice (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it”) and headed in two directions more or less simultaneously.

The speech, which got under way before Pelosi could give the customary speaker’s introduction, was a mishmash of high-minded and alliterative rhetoric, exaggerated descriptions of Trump’s achievements in office, outright lies to support the case for the wall, and pointed threats to political comity, bookended by references to second world war heroism and recited uncomfortably from a teleprompter.

Towards the end, when Trump spoke about the future, and how he and this Congress might be remembered, he sounded positively Reaganesque. But noble platitudes (“Our most exciting journeys still await. Our biggest victories are still to come. We have not yet begun to dream.”) couldn’t erase the barb embedded earlier in the speech, where the rules of the game for the next two years were plainly spelled out: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation” (or “ridiculous partisan investigations,” as he called them elsewhere in the speech).

The speech was also dotted with clear indications that unity, bipartisanship and greatness can only proceed in accordance with Trump’s definitions. He shows no intention of abandoning his singular focus on the manufactured border “crisis,” or of adopting a wider, more evidence-based immigration policy that would be acceptable to Democrats and most voters. He thinks that tariffs are merely leverage in trade talks, and that withdrawing from security and trade agreements shows America’s strength and saves face and money. His art of the deal has no room for win–win situations and is always about his personal victories.

Yet the reality for the next two years is that the agendas of Trump, the Republicans and the Democrats can only move forward if there is bipartisanship and compromise. To date, areas of agreement have been few — a criminal justice reform bill, a new farm bill, a bill to improve accountability in the veterans’ administration — and the president has found it much easier to enunciate what he is against than what he is for. His speech included just eight proposals for domestic policy, with little detail about what they might involve. That leaves space for Democrats to develop policies on these issues, and they will be eager to do so.

Some of these issues — infrastructure improvements and lowering pharmaceutical drug prices — have been on the agenda from the beginning of Trump’s presidency, but little progress has been made. It will be interesting to see the fate of health and human services secretary Alex Azar’s proposal to use higher Medicare Part D premiums to finance lower out-of-pocket drug costs. The plan will face intense lobbying, and perhaps a legal one too, from the pharmacy benefit managers, and the politics will also be tricky. The underlying aim of lowering costs is similar to that of Obamacare, and it was Republican efforts under President George W. Bush that prevented any previous action in this area. Trump wants Congress to pass legislation to deal with what he calls “global freeloading,” where drug prices are higher in America than elsewhere. That could have international ramifications.

Trump says his budget proposal to Congress (now overdue) will ask for funding to “eliminate the HIV epidemic” in the United States within ten years. Targeting hotspots — those counties where HIV infection rates are the highest — will require major investments in healthcare and social welfare, tackling poverty, discrimination and drug use. Some HIV/AIDS advocates say the goal is achievable, but only if the administration reverses course in several major areas of healthcare policy, including efforts to weaken Obamacare, cut funding for Planned Parenthood, and limit LGBTQ and immigrant rights.

Trump will also ask Congress for US$500 million over the next ten years to fund research into childhood cancers. This is a small amount in comparison with the National Cancer Institute’s nearly US$6 billion annual budget and seems disingenuous, given that last year Trump proposed cutting funds for the National Institutes of Health by 27 per cent (only to be rejected by Congress). This appears to be an effort to ensure the Childhood Cancer STAR Act, enacted last year, receives appropriations.

To work, both initiatives will require healthcare to be affordable and patients with pre-existing conditions to be protected. Trump mentioned the latter in his speech but added no detail. Whatever happened to the “we’re going to have insurance for everyone” commitment? Instead, seven million Americans have either lost or dropped health insurance coverage since 2016 and the number of children without health insurance is on the rise. Protecting patients with pre-existing conditions becomes economically impossible without the mandate to have health insurance, which the Trump administration has abolished from January 2019.

Controversially, and capitalising on the uproar over a current bill before the Virginia legislature, Trump called for the prohibition of late-term abortions. He spoke scornfully of New York’s new Reproductive Health Act, saying that lawmakers had “cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” The inaccuracies in his assertions about these bills and the very different responses of Republicans and Democrats to his remarks highlight how nasty and divisive this issue will be.

Meanwhile, Trump failed completely to mention the issues that are really impacting Americans’ lives. Opioid overdoses now kill far more people each year than car crashes, gun violence or HIV/AIDS and, together with gun violence, are largely to blame for drops in annual life expectancy over the past three years. The opioid epidemic has been declared a public emergency, but little action has followed and attacks on Medicaid and Obamacare only make this worse.

In what many would consider an egregious oversight, the speech made no reference to gun control or climate change. Presumably this reflects the extent to which Trump was speaking to his base rather than to America as a whole.

President Trump was hopelessly inept at dealing with a Republican-controlled Congress. Nothing about the White House in 2019 indicates that this will improve now that control has shifted. Today he is more isolated than ever (arguably wilfully so), White House operations appear chaotic, and relations with senior administration officials and congressional Republicans are messy. With Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, saying he is managing the staff not the president, power is apparently consolidating with Jared Kushner. In other words, Trump is increasingly looking to run the White House like the family business. When coupled with his disdain for procedure, briefings, transparency and hard work, the daily grind of legislative development and compromise is unlikely to happen.

There’s plenty of recent evidence that Trump has no intention of changing his bullying approach to those he views as his opposition. In an interview given before the State of the Union speech but after it was touted to be about unity and compromise, he accused Pelosi of rigid opposition to his wall proposal. “You have people dying all over the country,” he said, “because of people like Nancy Pelosi who don’t want to give proper border security for political reasons.” Just hours before the speech, Trump tweeted that Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer was a “nasty son of a bitch”; in its aftermath he called congressional oversight “presidential harassment.”

Yet the House–Senate conference committee is reportedly making real progress on the wall, and there is no doubt that, without interference, it can come up with a bipartisan solution, even if it is not a consensus. Pelosi says she will back any bipartisan agreement that emerges from the negotiations, leaving the success of these talks largely hinging on the White House’s endorsement. It remains to be seen whether Trump and Senate leader Mitch McConnell will obstruct the deal out of fear that the far right will characterise a bipartisan solution as weakness.

Despite the bluster, Trump must be worried about his continuing struggle in the polls. The majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance, with the RealClearPolitics poll average reporting an approval rating of a shade over 41 per cent and the FiveThirtyEight average putting it at 40 per cent. Public disapproval of the president has increased because a majority of Americans hold him most responsible for the partial federal government shutdown, which more than one in five Americans say inconvenienced them personally.

These problems are compounded by the Democrats’ takeover of the House. More Americans (49 per cent) trust Pelosi to handle the issues that are important to them than trust Trump (42 per cent). Not surprisingly, that poll split along party lines, but Trump must be concerned that independent voters largely favour Pelosi.

This diminishing support has consequences for the 2020 election. A PBS poll taken in mid January found that 57 per cent of registered voters said they would definitely vote against Trump in 2020, and a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in the run-up to the speech showed that 52 per cent of voters would definitely vote for someone other than Trump, with another 6 per cent saying they would probably vote against him.

Will the State of the Union speech turn the polls around? A CNN poll found that 59 per cent of the predominantly Republican audience for the speech responded to it positively, but 53 per cent of this pro-Trump audience said they did not think the president would succeed in working cooperatively with Congress. The fact is, despite what Trump might declare about the union, a large majority of Americans say they are pessimistic about the state of the country and few expect things will get better in the year ahead.

Trump and his aides seem unable to address the key issue that will hinder his election chances in 2020 — the fact that he has not been able to expand his support among voters. His favourability ratings have never been above 50 per cent. They do not reflect the improving state of the economy, which has not reached everyone, and may be a direct consequence of Trump’s modus operandi of inciting fear, anxiety, anger and envy to conjure up a dystopian world that only he can fix. For now, the polls show his words are not enough, and action is needed.

Trump appears to have little interest in bipartisan approaches to solving real-world problems. His focus seems to be on the potential opposition he will face in the 2020 election. He thrives when he is on the campaign trail, surrounded by supporters, rather than in the company of advisers seeking to constrain his worse instincts and legislators who view his positions and ideas critically. He has worked assiduously to raise funds for his re-election effort and now has more than US$129 million, a record amount for a sitting president at this point in the election cycle.

His State of the Union speech was laced with the issues he will run on, issues that generate the divisive culture wars that Trump relishes. Three particularly stand out.

First, Trump pointedly warned that the rise of socialism on the left (presumably via proposals like Medicare for all) threatens the nation’s core values. “America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination and control,” he said. The embedded message is that Democrats are opposed to freedom, free enterprise and patriotism, and will lead America into the poverty and chaos on show in Venezuela. Socialism can be used to besmirch Democratic proposals such as healthcare reform, taxation and addressing environmental hazards.

Second, Trump identified illegal immigration as a domestic danger, one that he will base on class. He claims that working-class Americans pay the price of job losses and lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime and a depleted social safety net. By contrast, in what political pundit E.J. Dionne described as a “mind-boggling moment of perverse Marxism,” Trump portrays wealthy politicians and donors who push for open borders living safely behind walls, gates and guards (presumably paid for by their gains from Trump’s vaunted tax reforms).

Third, Trump’s words on abortion are a preview of a more aggressive stance on the issue in the run-up to 2020. He is certainly emboldened by the more conservative Supreme Court, which could encourage critics of abortion rights to accelerate their efforts and work to pass new laws restricting abortion.

These three issues are in total contrast to those seen as important by Democrats — in fact, there is now no overlap on partisans’ top five issues.

There are at least two complicating factors for Trump. We must wait to see what will emerge from the “subpoena blizzard,” as Democrat-led committees begin the promised oversight investigations of the president, his family and his administration. And Trump’s campaign staff, worried about a potential Republican primary challenge, have launched efforts to change state party rules and crowd out potential rivals. They are also pressuring local party operations to increase the likelihood that only loyal Trump activists make it to the Republican nominating conventions in August 2020.

The Democrats’ response to the State of the Union speech, delivered by Stacey Abrams, showed the broad outline of the Democrats’ strategy for the lead-up to 2020. She succinctly laid out the party’s vision for prosperity and equality, and she herself served to highlight the importance of diversity and the role of women and minorities in the Democratic Party. She talked about all the things Trump didn’t — gun safety, climate change, the costs of education, salaries that provide economic security, LGBTQ rights and voting rights. The Democrats want compassionate treatment at the borders while indicating that does not mean open borders.

Trump’s speech and its associated pomp and circumstance are past. The future was not laid out on the teleprompter but lies in whatever Trump tweets. Twenty-four hours later, his only tweet remarked on how popular his speech was with Republicans. •


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