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Editorial: A step forward for Trump, but what he didn't say is key

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Posted on February 1, 2018 |
By Angelo Lynn



In Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday, he acted the part of a calm and rational president: optimistic, mostly uplifting, and confident in the nation’s ability to prosper and remain a world leader. By Trump standards, he delivered a positive message to the country, calling it “America’s moment” to shine. Good for him. It was a welcome change from the brash divisiveness of the past 12 months.

He could have been harsher on immigration; he could have played more to his base of racist nationalists; he could have tossed figurative bombs at foreign leaders and used derogatory names that his militaristic base seems to think shows the toughness they admire. He could have, in short, resorted more to his bombastic, fear mongering practiced on the campaign trail. He didn’t. His script called for him to act presidential, and he followed the day’s script.

As expected, he lauded the nation’s economic gains inherited from his predecessor, praised the American spirit, and called for bipartisan cooperation. It was in most ways a standard state-of-the-union speech — except for what he didn’t say.

He didn’t mention wage inequality or the rising gap between the rich and poor; he didn’t mention women anywhere in his speech, despite the growing #MeToo movement and women’s marches across the country; he mentioned Russia once in passing, but nowhere did he mention Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election or the elections of other allies, or whether he would impose the sanctions that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly endorsed. So far he has chosen not to impose those economic sanctions. While China has moved to fill the void caused by Trump’s lack of international leadership, he barely made any mention of geopolitics or major international issues like climate change. He failed to mention China, India, Iran, South America, Africa or even Europe in his speech. Of the Republican staples in such speeches, he did not mention the sky-rocketing national deficit, to which the $1.5 trillion tax cut will likely make far worse. He was also remarkably restrained on religious issues, abortion or otherwise.

Of those things he focused on — mainly the economy and immigration — he continued his practice of being big on bravado and loose with the facts. Indeed, fact-checking has become a routine part of everything this president says simply because his focus is to frame a story in the context he chooses, and lying is just part of that process.

So, to correct the record and put some of the statistics he used in his speech in context, here’s a run-down of some of his key statements:

•  Trump said: “Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 new jobs in manufacturing alone.” True, but that number is actually down compared to the average number of jobs created under President Barack Obama. According to the Department of Labor, the economy has added about 169,000 jobs per month since Trump was elected in 2016; that’s less than the 185,000 jobs per month added over the previous seven years of the Obama administration.

•  Trump said: “After years of wage stagnation, we are finally seeing rising wages.” Trump has always tried to characterize the state of the economy as a disaster when he took over. It’s never been true. (See job claims above.) Again, this statement is false. While wages are currently rising, they are rising at a slower rate under Trump than they were at the end of President Obama’s second term; that is, wage gains have slowed since Trump took office.

•  Trump said: “Apple has just announced its plans to invest a total of $350 billion in America over the next five years, and hire another 20,000 workers.” Again, while that accurately reflects what Apple has said it intends to do, it needs context: Apple has continuously spent money investing in its U.S. operations. Its current spending is $55 billion in 2018, which amounts to $275 billion over the next five years; economic reports show the actual amount of new investment Apple will contribute over the next five years would be about $37 billion, about $7 billion a year. That’s good, but not as good as Trump would have you believe.

•  Similarly, Trump said: “Many car companies are now building and expanding plants in the United States — something we have not seen for decades.” False. It’s good that automotive plants continue to expand since the government stepped in to bail out the auto industry under President Obama, which is largely credited with saving hundreds of thousands of jobs in that industry at the depths of the Great Recession in 2008-2010. Toyota opened a new plant in Mississippi in 2011, so Trump’s claim that this is something that hasn’t happened in decades is not true. Moreover, automotive employment during Trump’s first year in office is actually down compared to Obama’s last year in office; most likely that is because of the use of robotics and automation.

•  Trump said: “Last year, the F.D.A. approved more new and generic drugs and medical devices than ever before in our history.’’ This is true, and Democrats should get on board to speed up some of the processes that have previously hindered moving new products on line. While public safety is important, it’s no secret that government bureaucracy can be cumbersome beyond reason. The fact, according to the New York Times, is that the Food and Drug Administration approved 1,027 generic drugs in the 2017 fiscal year, the highest annual total in the agency’s history. Scott Gottlieb, the F.D.A. commissioner, also said that the agency approved 95 novel medical devices last year, which is another record.

•  Trump said: “We have ended the war on American energy — and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal. We are now very proudly an exporter of energy to the world.” Not yet. While the U.S. is expected to be a net exporter of energy sometime in the next decade, it remains a net importer of oil, which accounts for the bulk of its energy use. It is a net exporter or natural gas and coal, but coal is still one of the dirtiest fuels consumed, and it’s an industry in decline. Trump has not reversed job losses in that industry, even though he has reduced air pollution standards for the coal and energy industries in moves that have contributed to global warming.

•  Trump said: “One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs. In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States, and it’s very, very unfair.’’ It’s true drug pricing in this country is too expensive and unfair, and Democrats should be quick to embrace this apparent breakthrough in Trump’s thinking. Democrats, and Sen. Bernie Sanders in particular, have long sought to rein in the pharmaceutical industry’s outlandish pricing, which is a key contributor to the nation’s high cost of medical care. Republicans, on the other hand, have been reluctant to regulate that industry. Democrats should seize the moment and hold Trump to this commitment.

•  Trump said on the four pillars of immigration reform: “The third pillar ends the visa lottery — a program that randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of our people.” This proposal exaggerates what the visa lottery does, while needlessly inflaming Americans’ resentment of these immigrants. The visa lottery program does provide 50,000 immigrants visas from countries with low visitation rates per year. These immigrants must have a high school education, two years of work experience in the past five years that requires two years of training or experience. The applicants must undergo a medical exam and cannot have a criminal record. Lengthy background checks can last for months before approval. In short, ending this program will not address the problem Trump imagines there to be.

•  Trump said: “The stock market has smashed one record after another.” Kind of. The stock market has performed well during Trump’s first year, but not as well as it did under President Obama’s first year. The S&P stock index was up 24.7 percent in 2017, compared to 26.3 percent at the same point during President Obama’s administration. Obama, however, inherited an economy that was entering the worst recession the country had seen in 75 years. He helped reboot the economy — harmed by two tax cuts, unfunded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a soaring deficit, banking deregulation that precipitated the housing crisis, bank defaults and the automotive bailout — in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Under President Obama, stocks not only surged his first year, but also continued to recover and set record highs starting in 2013 through 2016, when Trump inherited an already strong economy.

•  Trump said: “We enacted the biggest tax cuts and reform in American history.” He says this repeatedly, even though he knows it’s not true. Tax cuts signed under President Reagan were bigger as a share of the economy. Trump’s tax cut bill passed recently ranks 12th largest in the nation’s history as a share of the economy. The more important question is how effectively the cuts stimulate the economy (most economists doubt that it will do much) and how much will the $1.5 trillion tax cut add to the long-term deficit, sparking inflation and a downturn in the economy a few years down the road.

Still, for a Trump speech, the untruths told were mild in comparison to others he has made, and his rhetoric was within the range of tolerable, not nasty. That’s a low bar, but for Trump a step forward.

— Angelo Lynn

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