News Sips (Ash Wednesday, 2017): Four Takeaways from the President’s Address to Congress

Here are the four things you need to know before your coffee gets cold, the Ash Wednesday, 2017 edition:

 

A Very Presidential Address

A new CEO enters a boardroom full of nervous board members. His goal is to lay out a vision for the company that will give the board confidence and describe what he sees as the mission for the future. His plan is a roadmap, a blueprint, for success. His task is a difficult one. He needs to sell ideas, hope, aspiration, and inspiration. This, too, was the task for President Donald Trump at last night’s Joint Address to Congress. Regardless of political view, there should be little doubt that the President was able to deliver a thoughtful, uplifting, motivational, and policy-oriented Address that hit almost all of the right notes.

The President’s speech, which lasted right around an hour, was well-written and well-delivered. We know, of course, that President Trump will never be a master orator. That’s just not his style. Rather, people like Mr. Trump because Mr. Trump is able to relate to people on a real, visceral level. People like Mr. Trump because they feel like he’s rejected the veneer of fakeness that comes with politicians. Mr. Trump can speak to their problems, understand where they’re coming from, and keep his promises. While numbers and policy details may fly around, there is one thing Mr. Trump has proven in his Presidency so far: he’s not a liar. He is keeping, or at least trying to keep, the promises that he made on the campaign trial. Sure, some of these are large-scale projects that will take years to implement (much to the chagrin of our instant-gratification culture), but Mr. Trump’s supporters can see that he is committed to the promises that he’s made.

The President started the Address with a forceful condemnation of bigotry and hatred in the country. He discussed the merits of legal immigration and the crimes being committed by illegal aliens. He stressed the importance of a border wall and vetting people coming into this country. He also made it clear that legal immigration and skilled labor were important to American success. He didn’t shy away from bucking some Republican orthodoxy on trade negotiations and infrastructure spending, but he tempered these calls with the need to reform the failing health care law and provide tax relief across the country. The speech had its soaring rhetoric of American dreams and exceptionalism, but it also had its truly pain-filled moments. One, in particular, was the recognition of the wife of a Navy SEAL recently killed in an intelligence recovery mission in Yemen. A two-minute standing ovation for her was the least a grateful country could do. The President talked about reducing regulations and expanding vouchers in education. Moreover, the President talked about the need to support law enforcement officials and restore bonds of trust between government, police, and citizens. He touted the appointment of a qualified Justice to the Supreme Court in the person of Judge Neil Gorsuch and left out major criticisms of the media or any opposition.

There was no mention of Russia, or any enemies of the country, but rather an open message to any other nation that the United States would be willing to be open to new friends. He noted that he was committed to respecting the sovereignty of other nations to plot their own course while asking that the world community, likewise, accept America’s decision to put its interests first. The foreign policy message was clear that the United States would not be looking for wars around the world (though we would fight and win them if we had to), but rather that America is looking to build on the relationships of the past to build future alliances.

Throughout all of the speech, the core message was one of the need to rebuild America’s strength. This message wasn’t just about the budget requirements for the modernization of the military, but rather in the infrastructure of the country and the educational opportunities for children. The clear goal was to get Americans working again. Jobs and the economy have played a central role in the way the President has approached his position and clearly present his focus for the future. Using economic numbers and labor force participation rates, the President outlined his goal to get Americans working and the economy growing at rates unseen in decades.

This was probably one of the best speeches Mr. Trump has given in his political career. Gone were the jabs about his electoral victory and the failures of the Democrats. Gone were the ad-libbed lines and anecdotes. Rather, we had a serious, sober, and optimistic Trump who was able to convey a message of growth and reform that was, in the truest sense, Presidential.

 

Obamacare Repeal Status

Republicans were hoping for the President to lay out some specifics of his plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and, despite reports that the President was not going to dive into policy concerns, he provided several key elements of his plan. The President’s repeal plan is being designed to expand choice, lower costs, expand access and provide better care to Americans.

At the outset, the President laid out the impending failure of the bloated Obamacare law. He noted that the individual mandate was not the right solution and that health insurance premiums have been spiking across the nation. He further pointed out that the promises, like being able to keep your doctor, that were used to sell the law, had been almost totally broken. The President pointed out that the law is failing quickly and that now is the time for action.

The President had a five-point plan for the replacement of Obamacare in one of the most substantive discussions he has had about the issue. The first point was that his plan would allow persons with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage and that persons currently enrolled in the health care exchanges have a stable transition to a new program.

The second point of the President’s plan is to expand the use of health-savings accounts and tax credits that can help individuals purchase the plan that is right for their needs. Perfectly articulated by the President: people should be able to buy the plan they want, not a plan forced on them by the government. This dovetails with the third point in the President’s plan: to give state governors flexibility that they have asked for with respect to Medicare in order to make sure that no person is left out of coverage.

The President’s fourth point touched on legal reforms that would prevent the artificial inflation of insurance costs. This point was also aimed at reducing the cost of prescription drugs. The President has looked to reach across the aisle to Democrats on this point in order to take his negotiation skill to the pharmaceutical world. Because the government is such a heavy buyer of drugs, the President believes that the market leverage the United States could wield in the marketplace could bring down the cost of prescriptions. The President’s final point was one he pushed very early on in the campaign and that is to let people buy insurance plans across state lines.

Republicans should be satisfied with the blueprint the President rolled out in the speech. Though it didn’t dive down into the numbers, it does provide a structural framework for discussion moving forward. Certainly the President’s outline is not the same thing as a final bill. Congressional Republicans are sure to take their time with the President’s bill (due out later this month) and present their own version. This, in turn, may not be a bill that can get support from some Senate Democrats. In the end, the process of unwinding the failing Obamacare law is just beginning, but the President laid out a coherent and understandable strategy for Republicans moving forward.

 

Immigration Grand Bargain

There were rumors circulating yesterday that the President would propose a “Grand Bargain” on immigration that would seek to find a path to legalization for persons in the country illegally. While there was no direct outlay of such an ambitious goal, and, frankly, such a program without significant caveats would have betrayed a wide swath of Mr. Trump’s supporters, the President did strike a note that he’d be open to working cooperatively with Congress once there was security on the border.

The President made several references in the speech to both illegal and legal immigration. This comes as the Administration is readying a replacement measure to a temporary suspension of immigration from nations in the Middle East and Africa that are unable to completely guarantee travelers are not sympathizers of terrorist organizations. The first version of this pause has been held up by a court in Seattle. While the Administration is still defending that lawsuit because they believe a victory on the merits is likely, the easiest solution to the concerns of the court is to draft a new, separate order. Sean Spicer, the Press Secretary, has stressed that the new order would comply with the exact language used by the courts that have stopped enforcement of the immigration pause and should pass any challenge. Opponents, of course, have vowed to try, again, to stop it.

The President held up merit-based immigration standards as being a goal for the Administration and forcefully condemned illegal immigrant violence. Several of the President’s guests at the Address had loved ones who had been murdered by illegals and they presented a powerful reminder of the real cost of the misplaced compassion shown to violent criminals. The President drew jeers from Democrats for the new VOICE program that would provide support to victims of illegals.

The President did lay the groundwork for cooperation on larger immigration projects outside of his signature border wall. He noted that, as long as the goal of immigration reform would be to improve jobs and wages for Americans and to strengthen American security, he would be open to ideas about reforming the immigration system.

 

Democrats Leaderless

The protest of their white suffragette suits coming to naught, Congressional Democrats were blindsided by an Address from the President that was modest, conciliatory and Presidential. Many of the goals laid out by the President struck a moderate tone as he appealed for Democrats to work with Republicans on issues where the two have common ground. Most shockingly, images surfaced of former DNC Chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and DNC Deputy Chair Keith Ellison declining to stand and clap for the widow of a United States Navy SEAL killed in action last month. It’s important to note that this was one of the longest ovations in history during a Presidential speech and drew loud, sustained, bipartisan applause.

That display, in microcosm, represents the challenge for the Democratic Party going forward. If Mr. Trump’s vision progresses in the way he laid out in his speech, there is no way Democratic resistance is the patriotic undertaking that it has been framed to be in recent weeks. Rather, the petulance of refusing to clap when the President urged Democrats and Republicans to find common ground becomes more a statement of a rump Party in decline than an election strategy for 2018.

The Democrats’ choice for their rebuttal to the President was the former Governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear whose rambling, error-laden address from a local diner was one of those decisions that sounded good on paper but failed in practice. It’s probably wrong to be so harsh on the former Governor, whose stewardship of Kentucky caused the Bluegrass State to abandon the Democrats and pick a Republican to replace him, because basically nothing can compare to the backdrop of a joint session of Congress. Frankly, the majority of Republican responses to Obama were weak or embarrassing and Democrats are now continuing that tradition. Look, it made sense, have an old school Democrat, surrounded by “normal people,” talk about core Democratic values. The problem is, the Party has moved so far towards identity politics that even the Beshears of the world are being left behind. It was also a savvy choice by Democrat leadership not to feature any of the myriad of jockeying 2020 hopefuls. It seems they may have learned their lesson from putting a finger on the scales for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

All-in-all, perhaps it would be best to get rid of “Responses” to Presidential Addresses. They don’t do much other than pander to supporters. This isn’t a condemnation of Beshear, but the whole practice. All we can gather from the Democratic Response was that the Party really is leaderless. However, in theory, this is better than the leaders who refused to clap for the wife of a fallen hero.

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Of course, there are more things going on in the world, but these should be enough to get your day started.

 

Matt McDaniel

Attorney and Political Commentator

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