President Trump’s 82-minute-long State of the Union address Tuesday night put a uniquely Trumpian spin on the usual recipe for the address: a healthy helping of rah-rah patriotism and legislative success stories layered on top of a generally vague and potentially unrealistic list of policy goals. Trump mixed in wildly contrasting calls for unity with more combative, and customary, partisan jabs, delivering essentially two speeches in one, thereby laying the foundation for his 2020 re-election campaign.
“Trump called for bipartisan cooperation — on his terms,” Politico’s Andrew Restuccia and Heather Caygle suggest. “And his soaring rhetoric came with few signals that he was willing to compromise his core beliefs.” The Politico authors provide a useful reminder that talk of unity and bipartisanship doesn’t last long in D.C. these days: “The president’s past two addresses to Congress featured happy talk of bipartisanship, but were soon followed by a return to his scorched-earth rhetoric.”
On the domestic policy front, the speech was notable for the areas where Trump indicated bipartisan cooperation should be possible — rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, lowering prescription drug prices, funding childhood cancer research, ending the HIV epidemic by 2030.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have said infrastructure and drug prices are areas where the two parties can potentially work together, but their notes of cautious optimism before the speech sounded more cautious and less optimistic after it. "So in the areas where he tried to reach out, you know -- drug prices, transportation, infrastructure -- there was no meat, there was no enthusiasm,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday. “All the enthusiasm was for the divisive parts like immigration, abortion, things like that.”
The speech was also notable for a couple of things the president did not say — like mentioning the budget deficit or declaring a national emergency on the southern border in order to secure funding for his desired border wall.
Here’s a quick rundown of what Trump said, or didn’t say, and some perspective on what it all means:
“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure. I know that the Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future. This is not an option. This is a necessity.”
The outlook: Trump offered few details, and made no mention of how he’d pay for a new infrastructure program, “which once again seems to be an idea he talks about, not something he plans to enact,” Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein says. If the passing reference to infrastructure “is any indication of its relative importance on his agenda, then the prospects for any kind of significant legislation seems remote,” Luke Tilley, chief economist at Wilmington Trust, told MarketWatch. And Vox’s Ezra Klein said, “In the Trump presidency, it’s always Infrastructure Week, and it always will be.”
“The next major priority for me, and for all of us, should be to lower the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs — and to protect patients with pre-existing conditions. Already, as a result of my administration’s efforts, in 2018 drug prices experienced their single largest decline in 46 years. But we must do more. It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place. This is wrong, unfair, and together we can stop it. I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients. We should also require drug companies, insurance companies, and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down.”
The outlook: The number of uninsured Americans has risen by 7 million under Trump, and his administration has supported a lawsuit that could end Obamacare’ protections for patients with pre-existing conditions. And Trump’s claim about drug prices falling last year doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s based on the change in the consumer price index for prescription drugs, which fell 0.6 percent in 2018.
“It's not a measure of how much the U.S. as a whole spends on drugs,” Axios’ Sam Baker explains. “Estimates from Altarum Health suggest total national drug spending increased by 5% last year.” Bakers adds: “More importantly, none of Trump's big ideas on drug prices are in effect yet, and were not in effect last year, and therefore could not have had much impact on last year's prices.”
Also, Congress isn’t fully on board with Trump’s drug-pricing proposals, with conservatives and Democrats each having concerns of their own about the administration’s approach. “Republicans and Democrats mostly agree on those broad talking points,” USA Today’s John Fritze and Christal Hayes write, “but the breakdown occurs in how each party wants to address the problem.”
Childhood Cancer Research
“Many childhood cancers have not seen new therapies in decades. My budget will ask the Congress for $500 million over the next 10 years to fund this critical life-saving research.”
The outlook: “$500 million over 10 years to solve childhood cancer is ... not a lot,” Bloomberg News congressional reporter Steven Dennis tweeted, adding that the amount proposed “is smaller than a lot of sports stadiums.” Pelosi reportedly slammed the request as inadequate. “We’re talking about a moonshot,” Pelosi reportedly said during a private meeting, referring to the $1.8 billion Congress approved for the Obama administration’s cancer initiative. “He’s talking about a trolley ride.”
Debt and Deficits
Trump’s speech made no mention of the rising budget deficit — expected to be about $900 billion in 2019 — or the national debt, and he barely touched on the federal budget overall.
“Trump didn’t even make a rhetorical nod to the need for fiscal responsibility,” The Washington Post’s James Hohmann says. And Bloomberg’s Dennis tweeted: “So little of that speech had to do with the federal budget -- the $4T+ a year we spend, the $1T a year we're set to borrow, the $21.9T debt we owe.” Why? When Trump previewed the speech for supporters Monday night, he was reportedly asked whether it would touch on the deficit. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney — yes, that Mick Mulvaney! — reportedly answered, “nobody cares.”
The outlook: “He’s right — nobody cares!” Vox’s Dylan Matthews writes. “The issue that Washington’s bipartisan quasi-centrist establishment had for decades anointed as the One True Serious Policy Matter is suddenly … not discussed, at all.” Eric Boehm at Reason is more troubled by the omission: “The deficit is not a sexy issue and it's not something that's likely to get solved quickly. It doesn't make for a good soundbite,” he writes. “Acknowledging the size of the problem is a first step towards tackling it, and Trump refused to take that step on Tuesday night.” The Post’s Hohmann says: “The ballooning national debt will be a core element of Trump’s legacy."