Donald Trump surprised many Americans (including me) this week by giving a vaguely presidential speech. His suit fit. He stuck to a script he had obviously practiced. He didn’t use numbers that were outright wrong, even if they lacked key context. And, unironically, he called for an end to “trivial fights.”
But while his first address to a joint session of Congress was wildly more optimistic and palatable than the Chicken Little-ish “American carnage” of his inauguration speech — and displayed far less egomania than the convention speech where he declared “I and I alone” can heal America — it wasn’t much more specific about what he wants to do for Americans, or how.
A president’s first address to Congress is usually a road map to their policy proposals. Pundits often complain of “laundry lists.” Congress actually wants direction, which is why I offered some last week.
But as we’ve heard over and over from the people who work with him, Trump is not a “details guy.” He’s someone who likes to think up goals, send other people off to make plans, and then armchair quarterback. If he has a forte, that’s it. So what did he give us Tuesday night? Let’s take a quick (very quick…) tour of the issues.
One of Trump’s stated top priorities — other than the “great, great wall” — is replacing Obamacare with “something terrific.” So you would expect to hear some clear plans for doing so. Instead, Trump basically asked for the moon.
“I am calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare — with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better healthcare,” Trump announced. The only specifics we got about how that might be possible were…
- not forcing people to buy insurance
- ensure Americans with pre-existing conditions have “access” to coverage
- ensure there is a “stable transition” from Obamacare to the new system
- Offer tax credits and health savings accounts
- Give states flexibility with Medicaid “to make sure no one is left out”
- “Implement legal reforms that protect patients and doctors from unnecessary costs that drive up the price of insurance” (sounds like…regulations?)
- Let Americans buy insurance from whatever state they want
The vagueness and fundamental incompatibility of these ideas left people believing Trump would do a variety of things about health care. The authors of two very different Republican replacements for Obamacare both heard Trump agreeing with their proposals.
And yet, he was more specific about health care than any other issue.
Trump also campaigned on big tax reform, famously saying he would make taxes so simple it put H&R Block out of business. All we got on the subject Tuesday:
“My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. It will a big, big cut. At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class.”
That doesn’t at all allay concerns about Trump’s huge proposed military funding increase; he’ll have to cut quite deeply into other discretionary spending (over half of which is already defense-related) to avoid blowing up the national debt. But of course he says we have to restore our “depleted” military, despite the fact we already spend more on defense than the next seven countries combined.
While most consumers don’t think of immigration as affecting their bottom line, Trump clearly does. Aside from the greatest wall this planet has ever seen, he proposed a grandiose immigration overhaul:
“Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have so many benefits,” Trump said. “It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class.”
Much of Trump’s speech had a conciliatory tone and called on Democrats to work with him. This is one area they would be happy to do so — especially since he wants to spend more than double the Bernie Sanders proposal Republicans rejected. The New York Times has already begged for it.
“The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding. America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling,” Trump said. “With this six trillion dollars we could have rebuilt our country twice. And maybe even three times, if we had people who had the ability to negotiate.”
To start with, he’s asking for a mere trillion dollars “financed through both public and private capital” that will be “creating millions of new jobs.” How? When? Trump didn’t say. His only guidance: “Buy American, and hire American.”
He did suggest what we’ll be paying for, though. “Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our very, very beautiful land,” Trump said.
I’ve been hoping Trump or Betsy DeVos would do more to address student loan debt, but so far we haven’t heard anything. He offered just two sentences about education in his speech: “I am calling upon members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”
I certainly expected some concrete plans in the areas above, but Trump also talked in passing about other financial improvements to American lives that would be worth noting if they pan out.
Making child care more affordable sounds solid. Getting veterans better care and providing paid family leave are things I’ve advocated for Trump taking up, and he mentioned both. “Investments in women’s health,” which sounds like a coded message to liberals if anything does. Reviving “dying industries” — well, sure, if they’re dying because of neglect and not becoming obsolete in the face of unstoppable globalization.
Those would all be great, but we need to see details and action soon. Trump says that “in terms of achievement, I think I’d give myself an A” so far. I’m not sure what curve he’s applying, but I would put him at a D+. So far, all we’ve gotten are sloppy executive orders, a lot of bickering and blame that Trump, to his credit, promised to move beyond, and a number of minor laws you can count on your hands. (Eight, as of the speech.)
Trump went to a lot of effort to set up the fact he “inherited a mess” from Obama, detailing the loss of manufacturing jobs, trade deficits, figures for poverty and food stamps. And that’s fine because Obama made the same complaints about Bush.
But we also have to remember that by this point in his presidency, Obama had already worked with a Democratic Congress to pass an $800 billion stimulus package.