Presented in no particular order, I offer the following on the first iteration of Trump At The State of the Union…
– Obviously, the President did a good job delivering the speech. That wasn’t a particular surprise. He’s not quite a smooth reading off a teleprompter as his predecessor was (that was, in fact, Barack Obama’s primary professional skill), but he’s effective. Trump has a presence about him which, while it’s not quite theatrical, does have showbiz written all over it. It’s almost like we elected Christopher Walken president and set him loose at a podium. And while Obama gave off this haughty, self-satisfied air of cool when he spoke, Trump is almost the opposite – it’s a bit like he still can’t believe he’s in the White House and doesn’t take all this seriously. It comes off as a little unpresidential at times but it makes him seem a lot more approachable.
– The post-speech analysis, at least what I watched of it before putting the TV on Netflix to watch Mindhunter (which is quite addictive, by the way, and if you’re looking for a binge it’s a decent candidate), seemed like a debate over whether the speech itself was partisan and bellicose, or an attempt at unification. The answer is, like most State of the Union speeches, probably a bit of both. After all, half the speech was taken up with the heroic stories of ordinary Americans invited to sit in the gallery, something which is a tradition in modern State of the Union speeches and has really become the primary attraction they offer nowadays – that’s unifying, or at least it ought to be. The policy part of Trump’s speech was a little more partisan, but then I can’t ever remember Obama extending olive branches in his State of the Union addresses – so by modern standards you’d have to say this was an unremarkable address in its combativeness.
– While the speech was a fine bit of political performance from a president who might be the first politician in memory who seems to consistently outperform expectations, Trump at the podium seemed like less of the story than the Democrats brooding in their seats. We’re accustomed to the opposition party grousing during the State of the Union by now, but last night seemed a bit over the top. After all, did anyone else find it a feat of remarkable self-discreditation for the Congressional Black Caucus not to applaud when Trump announced that African-American unemployment is now at the lowest level ever recorded? The constant camera shots of Nancy Pelosi chewing on her lips with a look of barely-concealed hysteria on her face were golden. So were the few shots of Tim Kaine, who is either suffering from the flu or needs to check into rehab. And then there was the Democrats’ point man on immigration, the former Chicago cabbie Luis Gutierrez, who stormed out of the hall when chants of “USA! USA!” broke out – someone, for the good of the Democrat Party, should have stopped him. It’s one thing that the Dems hate Trump; everybody gets that, and there are lots of unaffiliated voters who don’t particularly like the president, either. But it’s something else when that hatred starts looking like it’s aimed at the country rather than the president.
– When Trump said “Americans are dreamers, too” it might well have changed the entire calculus of the immigration debate. His team has done an outstanding job of framing the immigration debate away from the old formulation which focused on the plight of illegals who are just looking for a better life, and toward one which focuses on American citizens and what policies create opportunities for our people to succeed. That’s more populist than conservative, perhaps, but it contains enough common sense to resonate. And Trump can rattle off unemployment and wage statistics to paint a picture that his formulation actually works in practice – shut down illegal immigration and you stop depressing wages and job opportunities for Americans, and the standard of living increases. So far he has a good argument to make. That said, the argument won’t go on forever, because you will get to the point where a growing economy is going to run into a shortage of skilled workers to fuel it and without immigrants that could become a factor preventing growth. We’re not there just yet, though.
– Trump’s Four Pillars immigration plan, which calls for a 12-year path to citizenship for the 1.8 million illegal Dreamers along with border security, an end to the diversity lottery and the end of chain migration, seems like the best deal the Democrats are ever going to get. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that they’ve not endorsed it – in fact, they’ve done the opposite, and that’s something they’re going to pay for. It’s hard to imagine the Joe Manchins and Heidi Heitkamps sticking with Gutierrez’ absolutist open-borders position as this debate goes forward; if they do they’re going to lose re-election in pro-Trump states and the Democrats might well find themselves without enough votes in the Senate to block a lot more conservative immigration plan. And if Trump’s plan ends up splintering the Democrats on the immigration issue, the final deal is likely to be a good bit more conservative than it will be liberal. It seems like Pelosi and Chuck Schumer lack a battle plan on immigration and a rout could be in the offing; that started to become apparent during their failed shutdown attempt over DACA.
– One thing which was perhaps the most politically unifying and yet least realistic was Trump’s demand to spend some $1.5 trillion on infrastructure. Voters watching who care about the federal deficit likely had heart attacks over that part of the speech, even though Trump noted he wants state and local and even private contributions where appropriate with respect to that infrastructure spending. It would have been better, rather than throwing out such a large number, if Trump had emphasized more the need to reform how those projects are created and implemented with an eye toward saving time and money. He did some of that but it appeared lost after that massive number was thrown out. We’d like to have seen him mention that if infrastructure is such a crisis in this country, as everyone seems to think it is, that it’s time to do away with the antiquated Davis-Bacon prevailing wage law on federal projects so that we can get better bang for our taxpayer buck in fixing our infrastructure. There was a lost opportunity; one of Trump’s weaknesses is he falls into the old Washington trap of wanting to throw money at problems in an effort to prove how much politicians care about fixing them rather than recognizing it’s incompetence rather than a lack of money which allows those problems to persist. People like reform, and he missed an opportunity to grab that mantle.
– There was nothing new policy-wise on North Korea or any of the other foreign-policy items Trump talked about – it was pretty dispositive that when Trump talked about imposing sanctions on Communist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela the Democrats in the hall sat pouting – but the North Korea presentation was among the stronger segments nonetheless. Trump saluted the family of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student the Kim regime murdered, and also Ji Seong Ho, a North Korean dissident who lost his legs thanks that abusive regime. Trump told the story of how Ho keeps the clunky old crutches he used to get around on as a reminder of his travails, and Ho responded by raising them high amid a cascade of applause in what can only be described as an iconic, historical moment which couldn’t have been more embarrassing for the Nork regime. With no policy solution in North Korea which doesn’t involve intensely negative results, this was the best option to pursue in the State of the Union address – and Trump’s team carried it out perfectly.
– Of course, the best part of the SOTU was the fact Steve Scalise walked into the hall behind the president without any discernible aids like a crutch or a walker, and when Trump saluted him as the “toughest guy in this building, who took a bullet and was back at work three and a half months later,” that was a piece of American history Louisianans, and the rest of the country, can surely cherish.