I’ll be honest: There were parts of President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union that I liked. But then I remembered the reality of his presidency.
I liked when he called on the country to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution, and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” But then I remembered America is only 10 days past the longest government shutdown in history, which Trump triggered when he refused to compromise or cooperate with Democrats. And I remembered that Trump’s acting chief of staff just said the president is willing to do it again.
I liked when Trump said, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” But then I remembered that Trump killed an immigration deal — one he had agreed to, and that would have given him his wall while protecting DREAMers — because it didn’t cut legal immigration to the country.
I liked when Trump described his tax plan as “a massive tax cut for working families.” But then I remembered that more than 80 percent of its benefits went to the top 1 percent.
I liked when Trump said that he had “launched an unprecedented economic boom, a boom that has rarely been seen before.” But then I remembered that job growth was exactly as fast before he took office, and he was calling those numbers “phony” and “false” until the day he took credit for them.
I liked when Trump said that the nation’s priority should be to “lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs, and to protect patients with preexisting conditions.” But then I remembered that his policies had led to 7 million more people becoming uninsured, and that he had fought (and failed) to pass legislation ending protections for preexisting conditions.
I liked when Trump told Congress that an infrastructure bill was “not an option” but “a necessity.” Then I remembered that Trump has been president for years now, that he had control of Congress for most of that time, and that he has never prioritized either proposing or passing an infrastructure package. In the Trump presidency, it’s always Infrastructure Week, and it always will be.
I liked when Trump said that “one century after Congress passed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, we also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before.” Then I remembered that most of those women won office running against Trump’s agenda, and against the things he’s said about women.
There were genuine moments of accomplishment in Trump’s speech. He really did sign a bill that began the work of criminal justice reform. He really has presided over a period of low and falling unemployment, and if it’s not obvious that he deserves credit for it, it’s at least true he hasn’t interrupted it.
The presidency Trump could have had
Trump’s speech tonight could have been a victory lap. He could have bragged about the roads being repaired and the bridges being built by his infrastructure bill. He could have talked about the lives being saved by his massive mobilization to staunch the opioid crisis. He could have pointed to tax cuts focused on the middle class, a border wall built in exchange for protecting DREAMers, a health care effort that did what he promised and expanded coverage while cutting deductibles. And all of it would have come in context of the strongest economy since the 1990s.
Instead, Trump delivered his address with Speaker Nancy Pelosi looming over his shoulder, a reminder of the midterm election he just lost. He spoke having delayed the State of the Union due to a government shutdown he demanded and subsequently lost. He spoke with an approval rating of 41 percent — lower than his predecessor, Barack Obama, during the worst of the Great Recession.
The Trump presidency carries its direct costs, and it carries its opportunity costs. Its direct costs come in money wasted on high-income tax cuts, in the deterioration of America’s reputation abroad, in the corruption snaking through the executive branch, in the families ripped apart at the border, in the government agencies hollowed out by an exodus of talented staff.
The opportunity costs are harder to measure but no less real. Trump’s presidency has burned time, trust, and political energy that could have gone toward addressing America’s real problems. These are years that could have been spent fighting climate change, expanding health care coverage, investing in R&D, designing a saner and safer immigration system, making the tax code reward work rather than wealth.
These are years that could have been spent making the presidency Trump imagined tonight a reality.
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