The State of the Union Address

The immediate response by people in the house to President Trump’s State of the Union address seemed quite similar to a basketball game. The home crowd (Republicans) came to its feet and cheered at many of the assertions made during the address. The other side (Democrats), although they disagreed with much of the speech, generally stayed seated and quiet, although they frequently rolled their eyes. In other words, the partisan identification of the teams (Democrat or Republican) played a larger role in their response than the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the affirmations. In the blog today, I invite readers to assume the role of a referee and to evaluate the speech (or ref the game) as honestly and accurately as possible, based upon the evidence and not the team that one prefers. Ironically, it takes more courage to be an honest referee than a passionate fan.

At a superficial level, this was one of Trump’s better speeches. He mostly stayed on target and followed his teleprompter. He claimed he wanted to work with the Democrats. He made several assertions that most Democrats could agree with. But digging a bit deeper, there were many parts of his speech that belied his quest for unity. In the beginning, he claimed that his speech was neither a Republican nor a Democrat address, but an “American speech”. Nevertheless, Trump made many statements that, in my opinion, do not accurately reflect the sentiment of the majority of our citizens. What is even worse, many of his affirmations were misleading or outright lies.

Let’s get at it and ref the game.

Positive Promises

President Trump made some quite positive promises that received general support.

  • His budget will propose substantial funding to eliminate HIV-AIDS in the U.S. during the next ten years
  • He will strive to bring down prescription drug prices
  • He would like to see medical access for all U.S. citizens including those with pre-existing conditions

A valid critique of these promises is that the president should have pushed for legislation in these areas when he had a complete majority in both chambers of Congress.[1]

Fact Checking the Content

As is appropriate, a sitting president should claim successes, and Trump did so. He gave a lot of attention to successes in the economy (which Republicans had wanted him to emphasize more in the lead-up to the 2018 mid-term elections). He should receive credit where credit is due, but at times he has embellished his achievements. Such exaggerations are not truthful (see below) and, in fact, they tend to hurt his arguments.

  • “Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens.”

In order to bolster his argument in favor of a border wall, President Trump has frequently made this accusation. Nevertheless, the evidence supports just the contrary. The conservative, libertarian Cato Institute, in its 2018 study, came to the conclusion that immigrants (whether documented or undocumented) are less likely than native-born citizens to commit a crime.

  • “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities.”

Although this assertion has been made frequently by administration official during the past year, it is quite false. Compared with other cities of its size, El Paso, Texas has never had “extremely high rates of violent crime—one of the highest in the country”. In fact, El Paso is the second safest of the twenty cities of similar size.

Furthermore, Trump is arguing that the barrier contributed to making El Paso safer. Construction of the border barrier was begun in 2008 and finished in 2009. The violent crime rate reached its peak in El Paso in 1993 and dropped by 34% by 2006 (before the construction of the wall). The rate increased by 17% from 2006 through 2011. Therefore, the presence of the barrier did not lower violent crime in El Paso.

  • The United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world.”

This assertion is partly true but largely misleading. The U.S. did become the number one producer of oil in 2018. This part is true. Nevertheless, it became the number one producer of natural gas back in 2011. Ironically, President Obama affirmed that number one natural gas status back in his 2015 State of the Union address. This status might not be something to be applauded. To increase output, the environment has suffered.

  • “In just over two years since the election, we have launched an unprecedented economic boom — a boom that has rarely been seen before.”

This is not quite accurate. Trump inherited a growing economy from Obama and Trump´s policies have continued that growth. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, monthly job growth averaged 217,000 new jobs during Obama’s second term and has averaged slightly less (203,000 jobs) during these first two years of the Trump administration.

  • “The United States has far and away the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”

 The United States economy is “hot”. During the third quarter of 2018, it grew at an annual rate of 3.5%, although it slowed down in the fourth quarter. There are many countries with much higher rates of growth (India, China, Poland, Latvia, Greece, among others). Some have more than double the rate of the United States.

  • “This new era of cooperation can start with finally confirming the more than 300 highly qualified nominees who are still stuck in the Senate — in some cases years and years waiting. Not right. The Senate has failed to act on these nominations, which is unfair to the nominees and very unfair to our country. Now is the time for bipartisan action.”

This is quite misleading. The nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service has identified 705 key executive positions. Of these, 274 are vacant and have not been confirmed. Trump inflated the number a bit and blamed the Senate for its inaction. But the Senate has had a Republican majority during these last two years and could have pushed for confirmation. What is even more dishonest is the fact that Trump has not even nominated candidates for 144 of these positions. He cannot blame the Senate for his failure to nominate candidates.

Omissions in the State of our Nation

It is common for people in general, and presidents in particular, to highlight their successes and to omit their failures. If we are really concerned about the state of our nation, it is important to acknowledge and tackle our serious problems which were omitted in last Tuesday’s address. Given that the Democrats now have the majority in the House of Representatives, they are co-responsible for resolving these problems.

  • The Opioid Crisis – We are in the midst of a national crisis. On average, over 130 people in the United States die every day due to an overdose of opioids. That is 47,600 per year. This is an issue where Republicans and Democrats must work on together.
  • The National Debt – Our national debt is now $21 trillion and climbing. Our federal deficit has soared to $779 billion and is expected to be a trillion dollars this year. This is the down side of the tax cut from last year. If we are truly honest, we have borrowed (stolen?) money from future generations in order to fund our tax cuts and they will have to pay for the fact that we do not live within our budget.
  • The Undocumented Immigrants in our Country – There are roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants in our country. Many have put down deep roots in our country (jobs, education, church involvement, etc.), but they are living in political limbo. Just ignoring their situation only helps employers who exploit their vulnerable situation.
  • Jamal Khashoggi – Several months ago, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered, and his body was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. It has been confirmed that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia gave the order. We were promised that justice would be done, but the economic interests of the United States has trumped that commitment to justice. The silence is deafening.
  • Global Warming – There is overwhelming evidence that our planet is warming and that human activity (the use of fossil fuels) is a major factor behind it. The consequences for our world will be devastating. This is another example of where we are not demonstrating love for future generations.

Continuing Concern about the Russian Involvement in our Elections

Trump seems very concerned about the ongoing investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia (both the Mueller investigation and the new investigations initiated by the Democrat controlled House of Representatives). He broke from the unity emphasis of the rest of his speech and went directly after the Democrats on this issue.  “An economic miracle is taking place in the United States, and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations” and “if there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”

This is sadly reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s State of the Union address in 1974 (which I am old enough to have seen on TV). At the time, Nixon was being investigated for his alleged part in the Watergate affair. He demanded that the Watergate investigation be brought to a conclusion to “clear the innocent” even though he knew that he was guilty. He was out of office within a year. Trump’s statements on the investigations give the impression that he is trying to hide something. If he, his election campaign, and his administration, have nothing to hide, he should not try to block these investigations.

A healthy democracy requires a courageous commitment to honesty and fairness more than a partisan passion.  Let us applaud what is good, acknowledge what is not, and pursue truth and justice for all!

[1] A similar critique can be raised against President Obama back in 2009 and 2010 when he did not push comprehensive immigration reform or other “priorities” although the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress at that time.

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