The SOTU: Have We Hit Bottom Yet?

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, and I say that’s a good reason to sleep late. I didn’t watch the SOTU speech, and after I heard how long it was, I was glad I didn’t. Just 45 minutes of that [bleep] and I’d want to put my head in an oven. I trust we all survived.

Now I’m reading the reviews. A lot of people pointed out that Trump’s speech was full of lies and statements about unity and compromise he clearly didn’t mean. But I was looking for the subtexts. It’s not about what he said, but about what was signified.

Ezra Klein pointed out that Trump — or another president whose party enjoyed control of Congress — could have accomplished great things in two years. Somehow, Trump squandered one opportunity after another.  “In the Trump presidency, it’s always Infrastructure Week, and it always will be,” Klein said, wryly.

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.

The recent White House leaks that revealed how little time Trump spends every day actually working are hardly a surprise. He’s never in his life had a job, you know.

Matt Yglesias:

There were two truly well-done sections of the speech. One was the troll of the Democrats present around the divisive term “socialism.” The other was a series of moments on the stories of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans.

These high points were, however, classic signs of an intellectually exhausted presidency. America does have a rich history and heritage that can be mined for moments of nobility and emotion at will. And Democrats have some internal divisions that their opponents can exploit.

But Trump’s concluding exhortations to “look at the opportunities before us” and recognize that “our most thrilling achievements are still ahead” fell fundamentally flat. Trump does not have any big ideas or grand transformative vision. His administration is essentially a three-legged stool. On the first leg, the slow but steady improvement in economic conditions that happened during Barack Obama’s final six years in office has continued through Trump’s first two. On the second leg, he’s turned over essentially every government agency to business interests who enjoy lax regulation and thus ensure he and his party remain well-funded. On the third, he has anti-immigrant demagoguery to blame for every problem under the sun.

There are no real ideas here to tackle the escalating costs of health care, higher education, housing, and child care. No interest in economic inequality, no real thought about foreign policy, and basically no real energy or sense of purpose. Trump’s key idea was that to maintain peace and prosperity, Congress needs to abdicate its oversight responsibilities and let him be as corrupt as he wants. That’s all he’s left with — a vague hope that the economy holds up and nobody catches him with his hand in the cookie jar. But the investigations are going to happen, and they’re going to be fascinating.

Regarding socialism — some people think that Trump just made it more popular. Paul Waldman:

The trouble is that as an insult, “Socialism!” doesn’t have the zing it once did. And that’s Republicans’ own fault.

Perhaps not entirely, I’ll grant you. One reason “Socialist!” isn’t the powerful insult it once was is just time: Since the Soviet Union collapsed almost three decades ago, there are a couple of generations of Americans who have no memory of the Cold War. For them, socialism is not synonymous with communism, which anyway is just something they learned about in history class. They don’t view it as the ideology of our enemies.

But more importantly, in the time since, Republicans have attacked almost anything Democrats wanted to do as socialism. Modest tax increases on the wealthy? Socialism! Regulations to lower carbon emissions and reduce the risk of climate catastrophe? Socialism! Health-care reform built on maintaining private insurance but with stronger protections for consumers? Socialism!

After hearing that for so long, a lot of young people in particular seem to have concluded that “socialism” means little more than “policies that are more liberal than the Republican Party would prefer.” In other words, they’ve accepted the Republican view of what socialism is.

Trump talked about compromise, which in context appears to be approving everything he asks for. Steve M:

Trump’s nature means that he can’t even compromise strategically.Remember the George W. Bush presidency? It started with the bipartisan No Child Left Behind education bill, proposed by Bush three days after his inaugural. In retrospect it’s clear what Bush was doing — he was reaching across the aisle once, in a high-profile way, before reverting to a high level of partisanship. It worked. After proposing No Child Left Behind, Bush got his tax cuts, his deregulation, and his wars.

An infrastructure bill in the first days of 2017 could easily have been Trump’s No Child Left Behind. Chuck Schumer was eager for it. If it had been a real infrastructure bill with real money for real projects and not a phony attempt to make the rich richer by allowing them to leverage the bill’s incentives in order to fund for-profit projects, it would have passed easily. But Trump, for all his ideological inconsistency earlier in his life, discovered Fox News a decade or so ago, and now he’s in a partisan gang, and he likes it that way. It suits his nature. He’s had some wins — tax cuts, judges — but they’ve been partisan wins masterminded by veteran GOP partisans.

There’s are pleasure centers in Trump’s brain that light up when he’s approaching a moment of agreement with an opponent. But he doesn’t like compromise — it makes him feel “weak,” one of his most-used words — so he’d rather have the much greater rush of pleasure he gets from telling the opponent to fuck off.

Martin Longman:

He could have put his focus on what the Republican and Democrats in Congress could jointly accomplish in this session. He could have singled out key Democratic chairpersons that he was interested in working with to accomplish specific goals.

He did not do those things, which shows that legislation is still not a priority for him or even for his speechwriters and strategists. And to top it all off, he actually suggested that the Democrats should not investigate him if they want to get anything else done.

“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. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!

It was always going to be unlikely that the Trump administration would work productively with the Democratic House, but it would have been good politics to at least aspire to accomplishing something. With the right kind of message, Trump could have put great pressure on the Democrats to produce at least an infrastructure bill.

But he didn’t. I think legislation bores him. And the speech wasn’t that interesting, either. Paul Glastris:

… it’s a lot easier to judge how members of the GOP who were in the House chamber felt about the speech. It was right there for all of us to see on TV. And the overwhelming sense I got was that they didn’t like much of what they heard. In fact, I can’t remember a State of the Union address that was so tepidly received by members of the president’s own party.

Sure, there were moments when GOP lawmakers stood and applauded vigorously, at a few points even chanting “USA! USA!” But those occasions were remarkably few. And I don’t recall the cheering from the GOP side of the aisle ever being sustained and energetic. Instead, time after time, Trump’s crafted rhetoric and policy proposals were met with pro forma standing and limp clapping from Republicans, whose facial expressions alternated between polite nodding and cringing discomfort. In the cutaways to Mitch McConnell, the Senate leader was conspicuously restrained, even for him. The section on trade was, not surprisingly, poorly received by GOP members. The parts about pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Syria were met with crickets. And what struck me as most significant was the awkward near-silence with which Republicans greeted Trump’s bizarre warning that the economy would be jeopardized by “investigations.”

Frankly, Trump is a dull person even to psychoanalyze. His id is all there is to him. He’s a complex of malevolent character disorders, and they are all out there, plain as day. How long, Oh Bob Mueller, how long?

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