The 2018 SOTU: Bipartisan Rhetoric Masks Serious Policy Concerns

Although President Trump’s first State of the Union address initially appeared to call for bipartisanship and support for people from all backgrounds, the policy substance of the speech served to bolster Trump’s divisive, uncompromisingly partisan reputation.

After recognizing the heroism of everyday Americans in times of crisis, Trump touted the success of H.R. 1, the Republican tax reform bill known as the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act (not the largest tax cut in American history as he claimed, but rather the eighth largest). However, initial economic gains for low-income and middle-income Americans under H.R. 1 are likely to be cancelled out over the coming years through tax increases and cuts to social programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps), with long-term tax cut benefits going primarily to corporations and the wealthy.

Trump also used the address as an opportunity to take outsized and undue credit for positive trends in the economy. While 1.8 million jobs have been created since he took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is the slowest gain in jobs since 2010 — an indication of the strength of job growth under the previous administration. Trump was correct in conveying that African American unemployment rate was at a record low of 6.8 percent, but he failed to mention that the rate had already been in steep decline since 2010, from 16.8 percent to 7.7 percent at the time he took office.

The address was also marked by a continual conflation of immigration and crime, with Trump’s negative mischaracterizations of the immigration of families seeking to reunite eliciting groans from members of Congress. Despite his recent support for a deal providing undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship (in exchange for curbing legal immigration and securing funding for a border wall), Trump focused on pitting immigrants and native-born Americans against each other in terms of safety and economic security. He made no mention of the growth of violent white supremacist hate groups and the rise in hate crimes against Muslims and other marginalized groups by native-born Americans.

President Trump also pledged to increase the use of military force overseas and announced his intention to maintain use of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, which has been has been used to imprison and torture Muslims without due process for nearly 15 years.

Two areas Trump discussed where there may be space for bipartisan action are a $1.5 trillion infrastructure revitalization plan and support for vocational and technical training — both of which enjoy broad approval among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the public. As the advancement of legislation in these areas provides a strong opportunity for bipartisan collaboration, divisions could emerge between and within both parties.

The President’s lack of detail about his infrastructure plan was disappointing. The White House’s intention to limit federal spending to $200 billion on infrastructure would put tremendous financial pressure on state and local governments, compounded by H.R. 1’s limits to state and local tax deductions. The infrastructure plan should serve the public good, make inclusive investments in communities, protect and create jobs for the middle-class, and expand opportunity. Congress and the public should continue to be vigilant about how this corporate-friendly administration’s plan might favor private firms at the expense of the middle class and the environment.

In contrast with his joint address to Congress last year, Trump sought to paint an optimistic picture of the country and credit himself and his party in anticipation of the November midterm elections. While the President attempted to come across as more presidential to voters during a politically critical time, questions still remain about whether the country will be on the right track in the near future and if the president’s vision of a strong union truly includes all Americans. Congress must represent the will of the people and pass legislation that protects and secures an inclusive nation for all. Muslim Americans, the entire nation, and the world are watching.