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Attention Media: The President Spoke About Policy Too

The content of Trump’s speech matters more than the tone

If you didn’t watch President Trump’s State of the Union-like address to a joint session of Congress, you might not know what he said. That’s because post-speech media coverage focused on theater criticism, rather than policy.

On Twitter the next morning, I cataloged 19 media organizations, many of which the White House has attacked, with headlines about “tone” at the top of their homepages, including:

  • The New York Times: “Trump Softens Tone in Outlining Goals.”
  • CNN: “Presidential Trump: With a new tone, Trump declares ambitious vision for the country.”
  • The Atlantic: “Trump Changes His Tone.”
  • Politico: “Trump Finds a New Tone.”

And it wasn’t just American media. For example, the Guardian went with: “Presidential address: Trump calms tone in first speech to Congress.”

See the whole list here

Trump acts unpresidential so often that when he actually sounds presidential it’s worth noting. But tone shouldn’t be the main takeaway from a long, substantive, prepared address.

Because their jobs depend on ratings/readers/clicks, media professionals spend a lot of time thinking about audience perception, and reflexively cover politics from that perspective. Most talking heads are either long-time media figures or former political operatives from the image, rather than policy wings.

They’re Monday-morning image consultants. Instead of informing the public about what the president said and what that means for America, they analyze how he said it, and how that might play to the audience.

Nowhere was this more evident than the coverage of Carryn Owens, whose husband Ryan, a Navy SEAL, died in the January 29 raid on an al Qaeda compound in Yemen. Carryn sat near the First Lady, as per the decades-old bipartisan tradition of presidents inviting guests to State of the Union addresses to serve as political props. Trump acknowledged Ryan’s sacrifice, the chamber applauded, Carryn cried, and political commentators gushed.

Some found it stirring, some exploitative, but all thought it was effective. On CNN, Trump critic Van Jones called it the moment Donald Trump became president.

By focusing on this made-for-TV moment, and the tone of the address rather than policy, the media once again abdicated its main responsibility. Throughout the campaign, ABC, NBC, and CBS’ evening news broadcasts aired 32 minutes of policy coverage — total. That compares to 220 minutes in 2008. During the 2016 Republican primary, the same networks spent 333 minutes covering Donald Trump.

However, contrary to the style-over-substance media coverage, the president talked about policy, proposing new initiatives and making numerous claims about what he’s already done.

Bigotry

Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.

Trump opened by condemning recent antisemitic incidents and an attack that killed an Indian tech worker and injured another, both legal residents, by a white man who demanded to see their visas and yelled “get out of my country.”

However, this came the same day as reports that Trump suggested the antisemitic desecrations could be a false flag, done by Jews to elicit sympathy. And in early February, the administration announced the Countering Violent Extremism program will focus only on Islamic extremists and stop targeting white supremacists.

Americans concerned about violence against minorities should appreciate the gesture, but they will not be satisfied with words unless followed up with action.

Corruption

We have begun to drain the swamp of government corruption by imposing a 5 year ban on lobbying by executive branch officials — and a lifetime ban on becoming lobbyists for a foreign government.

This one’s a winner. Few will oppose efforts to slow the revolving door between government and K-street. Many will wonder why it wasn’t done already.

Jobs

Since my election, Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart, and many others, have announced that they will invest billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.

These investments are mostly the result of pre-election decisions.

I am going to bring back millions of jobs.

No he won’t. The United States is currently in the midst of the longest uninterrupted streak of monthly job creation, and it could certainly continue under Trump. But they’ll be new jobs, not old ones coming back. Coal lost out to cheaper, cleaner natural gas, while manufacturing job losses are mostly due to automation. The market won’t pay extra for coal-derived energy, and companies are not replacing their cheap, reliable robots with people.

But will Trump supporters who believe this promise abandon him if he doesn’t deliver?

The Stock Market

The stock market has gained almost three trillion dollars in value since the election on November 8th, a record.

In this case, Trump probably can take credit. The stock market is dominated by finance, and bankers expect Trump and the Republican Congress to lower their taxes and repeal post-financial crisis regulations, such as higher capital requirements.

But it’s a risky thing to brag about. Presidents can’t control the underlying fundamentals, and the stock market will almost certainly go down at some point during Trump’s tenure.

Taxes

My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class.

Corporate tax cuts are likely. However, Trump’s promise of middle class tax relief does not match congressional Republicans’ plans, which predominantly cut taxes for the wealthy. I bet Paul Ryan’s vision wins out.

Immigration

Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have many benefits: it will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class.

This refines Trump’s campaign stance, and probably appealed to many Americans. The United States makes it unnecessarily difficult for talented foreigners who come here to study or work to stay here long-term. And Trump’s working class supporters aren’t focused on highly educated immigrants. If the administration takes this route, bipartisan reform may be possible.

However, elsewhere in the speech, the president said:

It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur.

“Uncontrolled entry” bares no resemblance to reality. It’s fear-mongering fantasy, and belongs on talk radio, not in a presidential address.

We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America.

This rhetorical flourish is a defense of Trump’s poorly-designed, counterproductive travel/refugee ban. Following that standard means restricting immigration by country-of-origin rather than skill.

If the White House wants immigration reform to get through Congress, it has to clarify its priorities.

Infrastructure

To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital — — creating millions of new jobs.

By reiterating this campaign promise, Trump indicates his intention to follow through. And infrastructure improvement could win bipartisan support. However, congressional Republicans clearly prioritize healthcare and tax reform, and there’s only so much big legislation they can do before the midterms. Meanwhile, some conservatives will object to new spending, while many Democrats will argue the “private capital” part is just a giveaway to well-connected businesses.

Global Leadership

Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people — and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path. My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off, when there is less conflict — not more.

Donald Trump is the first modern president to decline the unofficial title of Leader of the Free World. The United States designed the post-WWII international system, and derives substantial benefits from leading it. Previous presidents did not see national and global leadership as mutually exclusive.

Trump’s right that America is better off when there is less conflict. But a big reason there’s less conflict is American global leadership.

Healthcare

Trump called on Congress to repeal Obamacare and touched on some goals for replacement, such as tax credits, health savings accounts, and selling insurance across state lines. But anyone hoping for a more defined plan was disappointed.

At the end of his remarks on healthcare, the president said:

Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope.

This grandiosity is not unusual for presidential addresses. For example, Obama said we would look back on his election as the time “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

But it puts Republicans in a bind.

The simple reality is this: healthcare costs money. Better healthcare at lower cost isn’t happening. The plans circulating Congress — including one by the new Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price — will save money by providing less care. If one of them passes, many Americans who rely on Obamacare or Medicaid, including some Trump voters, won’t like the results.

Regulation

We have undertaken a historic effort to massively reduce job‑crushing regulations, creating a deregulation task force inside of every Government agency; imposing a new rule which mandates that for every 1 new regulation, 2 old regulations must be eliminated.

This rule makes little sense. The effect of regulations matters, not the number. Some regulations do a lot more than others, and one new regulation could have a greater impact than two repealed.

We should judge regulations with a cost-benefit analysis, not an arbitrary number. If they’re burdensome, they should go; if they save money and provide benefits, they should stay. For example, extensive paperwork to start a business hinders economic activity, but curbing air pollution makes cities more pleasant and reduces health spending.

Trump also pointed to Megan Crowley, who survived a rare disease because her father developed a drug to treat it, to argue against drug regulations. FDA approval could be streamlined, but many drug safety regulations bring more benefit than cost.

Immigrant Crime

I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American Victims. The office is called VOICE — Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.

Of all the policies Trump proposed, this might be the most significant, and it drew audible gasps from the audience. DHS is part of the executive branch, and the law instructs the president to set priorities, which means the administration can do it without Congress.

To generate support for his new initiative, the president pointed to some victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. Like Megan Crowley and Carryn Owens, they sat near the First Family.

But anecdotes aren’t data. In the aggregate, immigrants — both legal and illegal — are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. This shouldn’t be surprising. They went through a lot to come to America, and, fearing deportation, tend to keep their heads down.

It’s hard to find a rationale for VOICE besides xenophobia. Murder committed by native-born citizens is just as terrible as a murder committed by undocumented immigrants. And it’s not like the police ignore murders if they suspect the perpetrator is in the country illegally.

Instead of obsessing over the president’s tone, the media should have focused on VOICE and other policy proposals.

Do less theater criticism. Your job is to inform the public.

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Nicholas Grossman

Nicholas Grossman

Senior Editor at Arc Digital. Poli Sci prof (IR) at U. Illinois. Author of “Drones and Terrorism.” Politics, national security, and occasional nerdery.