Trump’s State of Union

Trump’s State of the Union

The annual State of the Union address to Congress by the President is  regarded as a fairly formal report on what he regards as having happened over the past year, the accomplishments and the already known policies being pursued. The event is however seen as one of the most important in the US political calendar because it is one of the few occasions when all three branches of government are collected under one roof and it has also been used as an opportunity to honor the achievements of some individual Americans.

On occasions the President has also taken the opportunity to announce new policies or give existing ones new names or additional emphasis. After the 9/11 attack, for instance, President George W. Bush identified North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as representing significant threats to the United States, adding that  “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world”. His address outlined what he described as a “War on Terror”. Interestingly, with the collection of senior Americans all in one place to hear the address, it was decided some time ago that the terrorist threat requires the “hiding” of one senior who could take over as President if the hearings and the occupants are destroyed.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Trump’s address is that it provided an opportunity to bring together in a one hour address the main policies being  promulgated by the President and the main threats he believes the country faces. The rating to Trump given by TV stations was 26.9 compared with Obama’s second Union address of 29.8 (his last one was 19.6) and George Bush’s second of 33.6. This might be said to be better than expected given the continued attack on Trump by much of the media and his continued attack on the media generally.  This action by the leader of a country is most unusual and that Trump got a reasonable rating may offer other leaders an opportunity.

More generally, although strongly criticised by the Democrats (with a Kennedy being the lead speaker), Trump has had a reasonably good reception, partly because he is regarded as having offered or confirmed some compromises on the policies he had been advocating. This partly relates to his agreement to support citizenship to 1.8 million so-called “Dreamers” (who came to the US with their parents ­illegally as children )in exchange for sharp overall cuts to immigration and $US25 billion ($31bn) for the Mexican border wall.

But this compromise has not been accepted by the Democrats, who are threatening a possible further shutdown (although the first one went down badly recently) after the budget is introduced shortly (see Democrats Opposition to State of Union). With the likelihood following the tax cuts of a significant increase in the forecast budget deficit (but doubtless reducing over time), further threats or actual shutdowns seem likely. One possible saving that has been reported may be in spending on renewables and related programs, for which the budget may propose cuts of 72%.

Examples of media reaction include the editorial in The Australian (see Editorial on State of Union), which claims the speech was “well pitched and has already been well received”and that “Trump’s first year has been underrated”. It is certainly true that Trump has greatly benefitted from the improved growth in the economy and employment, although how much of that is due to him is moot. By contrast, a columnist for Bloomberg View (reprinted by the AFR) thought that Trump was “more self-congratulatory than most Presidents” (see Bernstein on State of Union).

More seriously, Greg Sheridan thought it was “a strong speech and it had a pretty good story to tell” and that “he certainly is entitled to bask in some of the credit for the economic surge”. He judges that the two outrageous rorts in the US immigration scheme(the use of relatives and the green card lottery)will be put to an end and supports Trump’s view for a merit-based system in which, like Australia, borders are controlled. According to Sheridan, we are “free to administer the most successful immigration system in the world”. (see Sheridan on State of Union).

On foreign policy, Sheridan argues that all of Trump’s specific policy commitments are sensible. In particular

  • The most important message was that Trump explicitly named China and Russia as rivals (some of Australian ministers have objected to such language but have failed to explain why we need a larger defence force if it is not true);
  • Modernise the US nuclear arsenal and keep it up to date ( it is not regarded as appropriate to even think about Australia having an arsenal);
  • Make a strong pitch for Congress to authorize increased defence expenditure ( previous Commentary have referred to Mattis’s proposals for a stronger defence force and to reports that Trump will seek an increase of 7% next year);
  • Keep Guatanamo Bay open to incarcerate the worst terrorists who Trump (and many others) regards as additional enemy combatants (despite Obama’s attempts to close GB, there are still 41 there);
  • Make sure that in the fight against the ISIS and al-Qa’ida the US had the necessary power to detain terror suspects “wherever we chase them down, wherever we find them”.
  • Congress is being asked to address the fundamental flaws in the Iran nuclear deal;
  • Tough sanctions have been imposed on the communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela;
  • A campaign of maximum pressure is being imposed to prevent North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles which could very soon threaten our homeland. “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”.

On international trade, David Uren points out that, while Trump believes that the rules-based framework has been exploited by China, he has been more cautious about imposing economic sanctions than when he came to office. He argues that the recent imposition of tariffs on imports of Chinese solar panels and washing machines  is not just trade policy but foreign policy which seeks compliance with rules and that the US talks of fair not free trade (see Uren on State of Union). This seems to me to be rather theoretical.

Overall, whatever we may think of him as an individual, Trump’s address exposes the reality of the many threats to society not only in the USA but in other countries too. It also indicates the difficulties of governance when there are wide differences of view within those countries. Let us hope for leaders with Trump’s capacity and who are able to show the way towards overcoming the many outstanding problems.

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