Trump’s speech: The highs and lows

Published 10:14 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

By John Micek

As he wrapped up his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump offered a bromide to a fractured nation:

“The time for trivial fights is behind us,” Trump said, offering an olive branch both to the audience seated before him and the audience watching at home, after six weeks of aggressive tweets, attacks on the press and denunciations of anyone and everyone who disagrees with him.

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Trump’s nearly 75-minute address offered some cause for optimism — he denounced the anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and terror that have marred the nation for the last few weeks. And he offered a broad, if detail-lacking agenda, that he said would restore American greatness.

The high points:

Infrastructure: Trump sounded the right note in calling for the largest public works program since the creation of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower:

“To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States, financed through both public and private capital, creating millions of new jobs,” he said.

In this, Trump is correct: Infrastructure construction is a sound bet economically, creating direct, indirect and induced jobs.

One of the big challenges: It’s not clear how Trump intends to pay for this program. Nor is it encouraging to think of Congress moving swiftly when lawmakers struggled for months to reauthorize the federal highway bill.

NATO:  In what must have been a balm for America’s European allies, Trump said America “strongly [supports] NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that de-throned fascism, and a Cold War and defeated communism.”

Child Care: Trump’s mention of his intent to improve access to childcare was one of those rare moments that prompted mostly stone-faced Democrats to rise and applaud.

The issue: Trump’s plan to make childcare cheaper seems mostly like a gift to the rich, according to a study by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.

“The tax experts at TPC say 70 percent of the benefits will go to families that make $100,000 or more. And 25 percent will go to people earning $200,000 or more,” Heather Long, of CNN money, reported.

“’Trump has identified a real challenge affecting working families, but his proposal would do little or nothing to help them,” Elaine Maag, an expert at the Tax Policy Center, told CNNMoney. A typical middle class family earns about $56,000.”

The low points:

Immigration: A disappointing amount of Trump’s speech focused on the non-existent public safety threat posed by undocumented immigrants, who commit crimes at a much lower rate than the native-born population. Trump’s order creating a new agency focused on undocumented crime within the Department of Homeland Security was pure fear-mongering.

Healthcare Reform: Trump repeated his call for the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. He offered five principles for the future that included guaranteeing access to care for people with pre-existing conditions; tort reform, and expanding access to health savings accounts. These are Republican solutions that have been circulating for years. And if they were easy or practical, they would have been done already.

Making things more complicated, Republicans, facing enraged crowds at home, are hardly unified on the best way to go about any such exercise. Democrats have zero interest at all in repealing or replacing the former administration’s signature piece of public policy.

The inevitable victory lap: Trump can’t seem to get through a speech without turning the spotlight on himself. And Tuesday was no exception, He told Congress that the “earth shifted beneath our feet” because of his win last November, ignoring the reality that his was an unremarkable electoral college victory.

In short, the speech was vintage Trump. He attempted a pivot to the presidential, even as he got in his own way.

High-flown rhetoric about clean water was kneecapped by executive action ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to review Obama-era water rules to gauge their impact on the economy.

Similarly, the president’s welcome, if tardy, condemnation of the acts of anti-Semitism (along with the shooting of Indian immigrants in Kansas City) was undercut by reports that Trump had suggested that they might have been false flags, or hoaxes, perpetrated by someone else.

To be sure, Trump could use a legislative win right now.

But it remains to be seen if his administration can work with Congress to translate the vague out-lines of a sweeping agenda into actual policy. His tendency toward chaos and disruption doesn’t augur well.

As with so much else with this president, we’ll have to wait and see.

John Micek is a syndicated columnist.