President Trump is scheduled to deliver his third State of the Union speech before Congress on Tuesday evening. Expect an earful about how great he is and how he single-handedly has saved the republic from America-hating Democrats and Obama-era policies. Expect a rosy picture involving low unemployment, a frothy stock market and upbeat expectations. It will be a through-the-looking-glass experience in which reality gets distorted by misleading statements, half-truths and outright lies — a standard Trump performance.
The true state of the union, in fact, looks much different from the one seen from inside Trump’s head. The economy is, indeed, moving along with continued record-low unemployment, including for African Americans, as the president often crows. But in addition to the steps he’s taken that have fueled the expanding economy he inherited from President Obama — most notably, the deep corporate tax cuts and the huge increases in defense spending — his protectionism and inconsistency have damaged some industries, leaving the rate of growth roughly where it was when he took the job. According to an analysis by the Tax Foundation, the president’s ill-conceived imposition of tariffs has cost Americans $88 billion. His much-touted NAFTA 2.0 (the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement) in the end will change relatively little. And while the economy is doing better for some people, it’s doing a lot less well for others, exacerbating the nation’s growing problem with income inequality.
On the most pressing issue of our time — global warming — Trump continues to stalk off alone on his own misguided path, ignoring the changing climate around him as he pursues ever more profits for industries reliant on coal, oil and natural gas, the very products that got us into this mess in the first place. The administration has sought to reduce controls over emissions from drilling sites and factories, expanded access to federal lands for further drilling and loosened mileage standards for new motor vehicles — while attacking the state of California for pursuing its own legally authorized effort to curtail greenhouse gas and other pollutants.
On immigration, Trump’s fix for the long-broken system is to, in effect, shut the borders to as many newcomers as he can — in the process trampling the internationally recognized rights of asylum seekers — while hounding people living here without permission, most of whom pose no threat to the nation. He has expanded the immigration detention system — prisons for those awaiting a decision on whether they can stay — and, despite increasing the number of immigration judges, his policies have pushed the backlog of pending cases to nearly 1.1 million (up from 630,000 during his first year in office). As for real immigration reform, in which the country’s laws would be rewritten to create humane, rational rules to govern who comes in and out? That seems to be a foreign concept to this president.
Trump has said some of the right things on healthcare, expressing concern about rising insurance premiums and prescription drug costs. Yet the steps he’s taken have made matters worse for people who need comprehensive coverage but don’t have employer-sponsored insurance — in other words, the people most dependent on the coverage provided through Obamacare. At the same time, he’s backed away from his boldest proposals for bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, and he’s been missing in action as legislation to protect consumers from surprise medical bills — supposedly a priority for the Trump administration — has been stymied in Congress by industry opposition.
Internationally, Trump’s hardline approach to relations with Iran, reflected in the assassination he ordered of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, nearly brought us to war. It was exactly the kind of military encounter he had pledged to avoid as part of his effort to extract us from unnecessary or unwinnable wars around the globe. His one-sided proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which upends decades of American policy in the region, pretty much guarantees no further progress there in the foreseeable future. His hasty withdrawal from Syria abandoned allied Kurdish forces to attacks from Turkey and Syria. His personal-diplomacy approach to North Korea has failed in dramatic fashion (to be sure, his predecessors didn’t do any better); the president’s unpredictability has made the U.S. an unreliable player on the international stage, weakening decades-long alliances with allies in Europe and elsewhere; and he has a dismaying penchant for cozying up to authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and even North Korean dictator (and Trump penpal) Kim Jong Un.
And there’s no small irony in the timing of Trump’s speech, which comes on the eve of his likely impeachment acquittal in the U.S. Senate. The president’s blatant attempt to abuse the power of his office for personal political gain is being treated by that body’s sycophantic Republicans with a well-practiced shrug.
So this is the state of the union: The economic expansion continues into its 11th year, with modest growth, steady job creation and high consumer confidence. Yet the body politic, cynical and torn by political and cultural tribalism that continues to gridlock Washington, struggles in many quarters for financial security, riven by racial and ethnic inequality. Meanwhile, the nation remains mired in expensive and dangerous foreign military campaigns, and without a plan for confronting climate change. Don’t let President Trump persuade you otherwise.