Week of February 2nd, 2018

Trump Moderates Tone in First State of the Union (SOTU) Speech


American presidents like making the State of the Union speech (SOTU) in person before Congress. Although a SOTU report is constitutionally required, in the past it was usually written and merely sent to the Congress. However, since the age of TV, presidents have made it a habit to turn this SOTU report into an opportunity to speak to the nation.

The SOTU speech is an opportunity to cheerlead their accomplishments and their agenda. It also gives them a chance to look presidential and boost their approval ratings.

This week’s SOTU was no different. Within minutes of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech, CBS News revealed their YouGov poll approval ratings on it. Unsurprisingly, 97% of Republican speech watchers liked it. More surprisingly, more than 50% of Independents liked it. Even 43% of Democrats liked it.

For such a “controversial” President, who reportedly has personal approval ratings in the high 30s, these were sensationally good results. Interestingly, majority of polled Americans felt the President was trying to unite the country with his speech. Less than a quarter that watched said it made them feel scared or angry.

Of course, a greater share of Republicans watched the speech (42 percent) compared to the 25 percent of viewers who identified as Democrats and 33 percent who called themselves independents.

The White House had a plan, and the president executed it. President Trump wanted to convey optimism about the country and a sense of his achievements thus far, based primarily on the performance of the economy. It’s no accident that the speech began with claiming the good news about job and wage growth and a celebration of the tax-cut legislation.

Trump was also somewhat successful in terms of boxing the Democrats in during the speech. Applause lines dealing with bipartisanship, American greatness, and economic growth were met with stony silence by the Democrats in the room. By not applauding the Democrats were made to look in a negative way.

The president was at times trying to reach out to the Democrats while at the same time giving his own supporters plenty to cheer about. The speech was at its most substantive when the president laid out the “four pillars” of his immigration proposal. It was a sign that the White House is prepared to fight out the immigration issue on the merits; It will also force the Democrats to debate the substance as well. The phrase “Americans are dreamers too” was an attempt to present a good argument; it emphasized Trump’s main point, which was that immigration policy should advance the interests of the people of the United States.

One of the problems with the speech was that there was little substance when talking about where the Trump administration was going in 2018. Outside the specifics on immigration, specifics were rare. Trump endorsed higher infrastructure investment and lower opioid addiction rates without saying a word about how these goals would be achieved.

Keeping in mind that Trump wasn’t specific, here are some specific issues that Trump addressed during the SOTU.

TRADE RELATIONS. Although Trump didn’t mention China and America’s trade deficit with them, he made it clear that an America First policy would be the norm. Trump said, “The era of economic surrender is over. From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal. We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones. And we will protect American workers and American intellectual property, through strong enforcement of our trade rules.”

WAR ON DRUGS. America’s War on Drugs has an international aspect as the US uses much of its intelligence community to monitor drug crops.

In the SOTU, Trump made it clear that the War on Drugs would pick up. He said, “In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses:  174 deaths per day.  Seven per hour.  We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge. My Administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need.  The struggle will be long and difficult — but, as Americans always do, we will prevail.”

Expect this war on drugs to have an impact on US policy towards Afghanistan, which is a major opium producer.

DEFENSE SPENDING. Promising to spend more on defense is a guaranteed way for a president to get a standing ovation during the SOTU. 2018 was no different as Trump said, “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values.  In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense. For this reason, I am asking the Congress to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military.”

REBUILDING AMERICA’S NUCLEAR WEAPONS ARSENAL. The American nuclear arsenal is more politically controversial than its conventional arsenal. However, since the nuclear material in nuclear weapons decays into other elements, nuclear weapons must be rebuilt or they will inevitably become non operational.

Since the American nuclear arsenal was built during the Cold War, it has aged to a degree where its efficacy is questionable. Consequently, there has been a push to modernize. However, Trump made it clear that he intended to modernize the arsenal when he said, “As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression.  Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons.  Unfortunately, we are not there yet.”

ISIS AND THE WAR ON TERROR. During the campaign, Trump made it clear that defeating terrorists would be a major goal of his administration. Although other nations were involved in the war on ISIS, it was Trump’s decision to remove restrictive rules of engagement that contributed to ISIS’s decline. He reminded listeners of this when he said, “Our warriors in Afghanistan also have new rules of engagement.  Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.” But the war in Afghanistan under his administration is not going well.

Needless to say, Trump was more than willing to take credit for the demise of ISIS, although he was silent on the Turkish invasion of Syria or advancing any new policy.

“Last year, I also pledged that we would work with our allies to extinguish ISIS from the face of the Earth,” Trump said.  “One year later, I am proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria.  But there is much more work to be done.  We will continue our fight until ISIS is defeated.”

Trump made it clear that those charged with terrorism would no longer be released. He said, “Terrorists who do things like place bombs in civilian hospitals are evil.  When possible, we annihilate them.  When necessary, we must be able to detain and question them.  But we must be clear:  Terrorists are not merely criminals.  They are unlawful enemy combatants.  And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”

In the past, we have foolishly released hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield — including the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi.

So today, I am keeping another promise.  I just signed an order directing Secretary Mattis to reexamine our military detention policy and to keep open the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay.” A policy outraged Democrats who are trying to close this facility.

“I am also asking the Congress to ensure that, in the fight against ISIS and al-Qa’ida, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists — wherever we chase them down.”

RECOGNIZING JERUSALEM AS ISRAEL’S CAPITAL. As we have noted in the past, the overwheling majority of the Congress want to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Consequently, he received a standing ovation when he said, “Last month, I also took an action endorsed unanimously by the Senate just months before:  I recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Again, he failed to advance any new policy to reach what he labeled

Earlier the “deal of the century” to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In a move that he thinks will be approved by Americans who want to punish nations that don’t totally agree with America, Trump made it clear that aid would be tied to agreeing with the US in the United Nations. Trump asked, “Tonight, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to help ensure American foreign-assistance dollars always serve American interests, and only go to America’s friends. As we strengthen friendships around the world, we are also restoring clarity about our adversaries.”

This could come back to hurt Trump as the vast majority of nations opposed Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

IRAN. One of the few foreign policy specifics Trump mentioned in the SOTU speech was a call for Congress to make changes to the nuclear deal with Iran. Although Trump failed to discuss his policy on Iran, Syria and Turkey, he announced support for protestors in Iran.

“When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent.  America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom,” Trump said. “I am asking the Congress to address the fundamental flaws in the terrible Iran nuclear deal.”

NORTH KOREA. North Korea, along with Iran were the major “bad guys” in Trump’s speech.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump noted. “We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening.”

“Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.  I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position. We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”

Despite the soaring phrases and touching stories of average Americans (a regular part of the SOTU since Reagan), it’s important to remember that this annual event is designed to project an optimistic view of America under the current administration. Although the speech will give Trump a temporary boost in the next few weeks, there are questions about how long lasting the impact will be.

Although Trump asked for legislation on several issues, the close split between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate will make it nearly impossible to pass meaningful legislation during this mid term election year.

Historically, the party that holds the White House loses seats in the Senate and House during mid term elections. And, although the chances that the Senate will flip to Democratic are slim, the chances that the House will have a Democratic majority after the November election is pretty good.

Consequently, there is little incentive for Democrats to work with the president, despite the calls for bipartisanship.

What this means is that as the election gets closer, the chances of any movement in Washington decreases.

In other words, if you thought the Congress did little last year, just wait until you see what they won’t do in 2018.