Brookings experts react to Trump’s third State of the Union

Feb 4, 2020; Washington, DC, USA;  President Donald J. Trump delivers the State of the Union address from the House chamber of the United States Capitol in Washington. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Amid a contentious impeachment trial and as he seeks reelection in 2020, Trump gave his third State of the Union address to Congress and the nation on Tuesday night. The president’s speech touched on topics from jobs and the economy to immigration reform and national security. Experts from across Brookings share their reactions to what was said, and what was missed.

SNAP may not be as effective during the next recession


Lauren Bauer

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is designed to expand during economic downturns, contract during expansions, and serve a wide range of income-eligible households—it’s a safety net and an automatic stabilizer. SNAP provides resources to purchase food for eligible households and reduces food insecurity, stimulates the economy and shores up households’ financial well-being, and improves health and later-life outcomes among program participants. Average monthly participation in SNAP started ticking up during the George W. Bush administration, peaked in 2013, and has been on a downward trajectory ever since. Roll expansions are closely tied to local economic conditions; for example, research by Peter Ganong and Jeff Liebman find that increases in the unemployment rate during the Great Recession—i.e., more widespread eligibility for safety net programs—explain most of the increase in caseloads. It is therefore troubling that the only reference to SNAP during the State of the Union bemoaned critical Great Recession-related roll expansions. It was troubling but perhaps not surprising, given that the USDA has recently finalized SNAP work requirement rules that will make it much harder for SNAP to expand during the next recession. In research with Jay Shambaugh and Jana Parsons, we provide evidence that had the final SNAP work requirement rule been in place during the Great Recession, SNAP expansion would have been improperly curtailed. In contrast, Hilary Hoynes and Diane Schanzenbach have a proposal for SNAP that improves its countercyclicality: eliminate work requirements and increase benefit levels when a recession triggers.

America first, but at a cost


William Burke-White

In President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union, foreign policy was but a tool for his “America First” domestic political priorities. He offered no strategy or vision for the world beyond our borders, but occasionally invoked that world to buttress his political case at home. Perhaps the most stunning foreign affairs moment was the reveal of Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó. The rare appearance of a foreign head of state—much less an embattled opposition leader who has claimed the presidency—signaled Trump’s support for democratic change in Venezuela. But, in context, Guaidó’s appearance was used to attack socialism and, particularly, democratic hopefuls whom Trump has branded as such: “Socialism destroys nations. But always remember: Freedom unifies the soul.”

Similarly, Trump’s other nods to the world beyond the border were more often focused on the border, not the world. Mentioning briefly migration cooperation agreements with Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Trump underscored not efforts to improve political and economic conditions in those countries, but rather our “very strongly guarded southern border where, as we speak, a long, tall and very powerful wall is being built.”

So too on trade, Trump offered no framing vision or strategy beyond keeping his promises of “fairness and reciprocity.” He lauded his new USMCA trade deal and a preliminary agreement with China, noting that they would allow us to “rebuild our country.” He used them to buttress his claim to economic success, not to frame a longer-term vision for global trade.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the greatest collective challenge of our times—the climate emergency—was almost absent. Trump announced his intention to join a collective initiative “to plant new trees in America and all around the world,” which was launched last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But he failed to offer any vision or strategy to rebuild the international architecture of cooperation on climate. Unfortunately, Trump’s great southern wall will do little to keep out rising temperatures or block catastrophic storms.

Building the wall continues at the expense of U.S values and security threats


Vanda Felbab-Brown

President Trump’s State of the Union speech was a demagogical spin of facts designed to appeal to his base in the forthcoming elections. Predictably, the president emphasized the threats allegedly posed by undocumented migrants and the restrictive and deportation actions his administration has been taking against them. Still trying to portray undocumented migrants as dangerous criminals and murderers, the president once again emphasized the need to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

The administration has so far managed to build 101 miles of new barriers, some replacing existing barriers and others in new areas. Most of the construction has taken place on lands the federal government already owns—primarily sensitive wildlife areas. The construction has already caused critical environmental damage to areas such as Organ Pipe National Monument, destroying ecosystems, disrupting wildlife migration, and ransacking Native American sacred sites.

Worse, even the strongest new barrier has proven vulnerable to breaches, with smuggling crews sawing through the metal bollards or building ladders to scale it.

In order to build the 101 miles and fund the planned construction of another 450 miles promised to be erected by the November election, the president disregarded congressional budgetary authority and commandeered money from the Department of Defense. The wall thus continues to be not only a colossal and counterproductive waste of money—alien to U.S. values and credos the administration pretends to embrace—but also a financial drain of resources from programs for dealing with actual security threats. Despite the president’s false claims of rebuilding the U.S. military, the commandeered and diverted funds—$3.6 billion last year and another $7.2 billion planned this year—undermine the quality of life of U.S. soldiers by taking money away from upgrading military facilities which are leaking asbestos or are compromised by sinkholes. The diversion also compromises vital national security objectives, such as the safety of intercontinental ballistic missile systems and surveillance and communication support for airborne fighter jets.

The virtual barrier the president has erected against migrants is brutal. Migrants forced to stay in Mexico to await their asylum hearings languish in miserable conditions for months. To secure a new trade agreement with the United States—USMCA—the Mexican president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has abandoned commitments to protect migrants’ human rights. Virtually no migrants are being released to the United States and many are being deported from the United States and Mexico to Central America where their conditions, including safety, are severely compromised. Humanitarian concerns and obligations have been shifted to Central America and shoved under the rug.

Meanwhile, desperate migrants are once again resorting to illegal crossings. Not only does the Trump administration make an appalling mockery of U.S. values, it exports its heartless abuse abroad.

Trump blasted single payer health care, but ignored the actual policy stakes of this year’s election


Matthew Fiedler

The Democratic primary has sparked a conversation about whether health insurance is best provided by private insurers or the public sector. That debate involves weighing the advantages of private insurance (particularly the potential for insurers to innovate in care management and benefit design) against the advantages of a single public payer (including reduced complexity for patients and health care providers and public payers’ ability to secure lower prices from providers). President Trump’s remarks did not grapple with these substantive tradeoffs, but did signal his strong opposition to single payer proposals.

But there’s also another debate happening: whether policymakers should cut federal coverage programs, even if that means more people are uninsured, or whether policymakers should instead expand those programs to cover the 9 percent of Americans who remain uninsured, even if it increases federal costs. President Trump has placed himself firmly in the first camp by backing efforts to eliminate the Affordable Care Act legislatively and, more recently, through the courts. By contrast, all of President Trump’s potential Democratic opponents support expanding federal coverage programs to cover more of the uninsured, although the scope of those proposals varies from candidate to candidate.

President Trump largely avoided this second debate last night, but this is what’s really at stake in this year’s election. Even if a Democrat who supports single payer becomes president and Democrats sweep both houses of Congress, implementation of a single payer system is unlikely, although smaller coverage expansions are possible. By contrast, if President Trump is reelected with Republican majorities in Congress, a renewed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is quite plausible—and given how narrowly the last effort failed, this new one might well be successful.

Climate change will be an election issue, but Trump plans to plant trees


Samantha Gross

President Trump’s State of the Union address went on for an hour and 25 minutes and all he said about climate or the environment is that he will join an effort to plant a trillion trees. Let that sink in for a minute.

Climate change will be a top issue in the upcoming election. The recent World Economic Forum event in Davos nearly turned into a climate conference; in a survey sent to participants beforehand, their top five concerns all related to climate or the environment. Natural disasters made more likely by climate change—including historic floods in the midwest, fires in California, and hurricanes in the southeast—have caused tens of billions of dollars of damage in the United States since the last SOTU. The United States is the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas and must be a leader in the transition to a lower-carbon energy system.

The president had plenty of time in his address to throw red meat to his supporters, vilifying immigrants and bragging about his efficiency at turning them away. But for one of the central challenges facing mankind today? Only time to plant some trees. Sad.

Trump laid out his reelection strategy


John Hudak

In the State of the Union, President Trump laid out a clear approach to how he plans to get reelected: tout a strong economy, use rhetoric to stoke fear in voters about problems in the economy, and paint Democrats as socialists who are to be compared to the world’s dictators. The speech was powerful and effective in advancing his political interests. There were extended stretches of the speech where the president struggled with the truth—claiming to be committed to protecting preexisting condition coverage, arguing this is the strongest economy in history, vowing to protect social security. But the average American doesn’t have the time or interest in fact-checking the president or assessing the data and context of his claims.

Instead, the president laid out a basic, easy to digest argument: the economy is great, immigrants are dangerous, and Democrats are evil socialists. Combatting those claims with effective arguments is an essential strategy for the president’s opponents but, thus far, Democrats have failed. Many voters prefer easy arguments over detailed, complicated ones. The president showed last night he won’t be bogged down in minutiae in making sure his arguments are accurate, and the question is whether the president can effectively use this technique to keep Democrats on the defensive—a position usually occupied by the incumbent party.

Is the economy in a “blue-collar boom?” Not so, if you ask workers


Molly Kinder

In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Trump triumphantly declared that the “roaring” economy has been a “blue-collar boom.” But do workers agree? What I heard last summer with colleagues from New America when we interviewed low-wage workers across the country was not a boom but, for many, a bust.

First, unemployment figures mask economic precarity. As my colleagues Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman pointed out, 44 percent of all U.S. jobs pay so little that workers can barely afford to live. This data is bolstered by many of the sentiments from workers we interviewed describing living paycheck to paycheck without any financial cushion to weather emergencies. Employment only matters so much as workers can access quality jobs.

Second, rising wages mean little if workers can’t get hours or benefits. Many grocery and retail workers voiced frustration that their employers were raising hourly pay but making it even harder for workers to get enough hours to pay their bills and—importantly— to qualify for health benefits.

Third, workers described feeling uncertain and uneasy about their future. Workers reported dramatic technological changes in their workplaces and expressed pessimism about the future for human labor. Retail workers at malls eyed shuttered storefronts nervously. Headlines this week of Macy’s plans to shutter 125 stores are just the latest story of an industry in upheaval.

Finally, workers with long tenures contradict President Trump’s claim that the economy is the best it has ever been. Where once their employers invested in workers and offered benefits and upward mobility, they now see only a focus on shareholders and profits above all else.

The working class today faces historic inequality in both power and prosperity. A more equitable economy that truly delivers for working people requires a re-balancing of power and policy change to address the long-term erosion of union representation, the fissuring of the workplace, financialization, monopsony power, an insufficient safety net and talent system, and the impact of globalization and technology. We should start by giving workers a voice in the discussions and debates that impact them.

Trump’s speech was surprisingly normal


Jonathan Rauch

The most unconventional president ever to hold office just delivered the most conventional speech of his career. Most of President Trump’s State of the Union speech could have been given comfortably by Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. The only surprise in the speech was the absence of surprises.

Trump led with the economy, the economy, and also the economy, before going on to emphasize … the economy. And no wonder. With unemployment at only 3.5 percent, wages rising for less-skilled workers, and the expansion setting a record for durability, an incumbent president’s approval ratings ought to be well above 50 percent. As of Tuesday night, Trump had yet to break that barrier in Gallup’s approval index, partly because his compulsively transgressive behavior gets in his own way. Hammering home the strong economy pitches to his greatest asset in this year’s campaign.

Remember “American carnage,” the Mad Max vision of America that Trump sketched in his inaugural address? Well, now it is morning in America. Again, that is exactly what a conventional incumbent says in a conventional re-election campaign. Trump did play aggressively (and demagogically) to fear of immigrants Tuesday night, but more notable was how bright things suddenly look. With a 3-year record to defend, he played by the rules and pivoted toward positivity.

And toward the political center. The polarizer-in-chief managed to sound almost like a Democrat on eradicating AIDS, reducing opioid deaths, reducing pharmaceutical prices, expanding family leave, protecting Social Security and Medicare, making trade fairer, giving second chances to ex-prisoners, and guaranteeing health coverage for pre-existing conditions (which he is in fact trying to revoke). He even nodded to unions.

For 90 minutes, the universe flickered and Donald Trump became the version of himself that Democrats most fear: the economic populist who steals liberal Democrats’ clothing while using cultural populism to bond with conservative Republicans. But can he stay on message, and off Twitter, for 9 months? That would be … surprising.

Opportunity Zones aren’t as great as they sound


Jenny Schuetz

President Trump took a victory lap on Opportunity Zones, claiming that money is “pouring into poor neighborhoods” due to tax changes in the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Evidence doesn’t back this up, though. Many neighborhoods designated as OZs were already experiencing socioeconomic growth before the program began. And critics have pointed out the program design is prone to cronyism and abuse—not a recipe for helping poor neighborhoods.

Enacting tax-credit scholarships to pay for private school


Jon Valant

The president’s most important comments about education were about tax-credit scholarship programs and, specifically, the “Education Freedom Scholarships” proposal that Betsy DeVos has been promoting. Tax-credit scholarship programs are variants of private school voucher programs that give families government funds to pay for private school. Tax-credit scholarships are technically and legally distinct from vouchers—and more confusing—because the money does not actually pass through government. Instead, taxpayers are offered a credit (often dollar-for-dollar) that lets them direct their would-be tax payments to nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” (SGOs). SGOs then distribute that money to families to pay for private school tuition and fees (or other approved uses).

Advocates believe this distinction puts tax-credit scholarship programs on stronger legal and political ground than vouchers. However, the most substantive critiques of vouchers also apply here. These programs direct public funds that could—and very possibly would—be used on public education to private schools instead. The private schools that receive funds are not subject to the same requirements and democratic governance as public schools. And while an important case about the use of public funds for religious schools is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court (Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue), these programs raise questions (of legality and principle) about the separation of church and state.

Outspoken on trade, but silent on climate and energy


David Victor

The State of the Union during a bitterly contested election year is a poor way to take the pulse of the nation. Fact, balance, and compromise are the first to go; partisanship and dressed up stump speeches are in vogue. Tuesday night’s State of the Union fit that mold and was, for the most part, devoid of analytical content. It was a red meat, campaign event—replete with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for Rush Limbaugh, right wing talker-in-chief—and for the president’s base it delivered. During the 2016 campaign he promised the central accomplishments he celebrated last night—”slashing a number of job killing-regulations, enacting historic and record-setting tax cuts, and fighting for fair and reciprocal trade agreements.”

On the trade front, he doubled down: “In fact, unfair trade is perhaps the single biggest reason I decided to run for president. Following NAFTA’s adoption, our nation lost 1 in 4 manufacturing jobs.” Those of us in think tanks easily forget how trade—and the perception of impacts from trade—have reshaped the American policy and ushered Trump into office. That, along with a lot of bluster from the White House and legions of judicial appointments, are cementing a Trump legacy that is like a Rorschach test. A horror dragon for the left, and nirvana butterfly for the far right.

On climate, environment, and energy—topics where I work—the speech was essentially silent. Absent completely was any talk about coal, a signature issue in Trump’s 2016 campaign. The huge surge in energy production in the United States, the single most important factor reshaping global energy markets today, was mentioned only in passing. On climate, silence—which fits the campaign mode since Trump’s base is prone to see climate science as a hoax conspiracy and the main U.S. policy moves in this area have been all in the wrong direction. And on the environment, just one sentence: a vague promise to plant a trillion trees.

For someone living outside the beltway (worse, in California) it is really striking to watch the spectacle of the State of the Union—with one side of the House in uproarious standing applause and the other stone-faced. The president confident, and the Speaker of the House ripping up his speech at the end of the show. And on substance it is worrying that we have moved many steps backward on topics like climate change where there used to be a joint vision for action. Now, at best, we will plant some trees—or maybe not.

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