President Trump gave his first address to a joint session of Congress last night.
The one thing I can say with great confidence, based on applause patterns, is that it didn’t generate the same spirit of bipartisan good will as the Pope’s address back in 2015.
But let’s set aside the Republican-vs-Democrat silliness and focus on public policy.
What was good in Trump’s speech? Overall, there were nine things that seemed positive.
These are the three things that got my blood pumping.
- Lower corporate tax rate – Trump didn’t specifically reference the 15-percent rate he mentioned in the campaign, but he aggressively argued for a big drop in America’s punitive corporate tax rate.
- Obamacare repeal – The president effectively outlined how Obamacare is a disaster for taxpayers, for consumers, for the economy, and for the healthcare system.
- Food and Drug Administration – Trump correctly criticized the bureaucrats at the FDA for stifling medical progress. I think it’s safe to assume that bureaucracy will be better behaved for the next four years. Maybe we’ll even get rid of the milk police.
What was hopeful about Trump’s speech?
Quite a bit, actually. Here are six things that caught my attention where it’s possible that we’ll see progress.
- Jobs – President Trump correctly diagnosed the problem of dismal labor force participation. It remains to be seen whether the net effect of his policies is more job creation.
- Washington corruption – I like that he focused on trying to clean up Washington, but I don’t think a handful of restrictions that make it hard for Administration officials to become lobbyists will make a difference. You need to shrink government to “drain the swamp.”
- Obamacare replacement – While the repeal message was strong, the replace message was fuzzy. It seems Trump wants more of everything, but at lower cost. That’s what a free market can deliver, but I worry that’s not quite what he has in mind. In the back of my mind, I’m worried that I was right five years ago when I predicted that Obamacare would decimate the Democrats politically but nonetheless be a long-fun victory for statism.
- Medicaid reform – We didn’t get the necessary specifics, but the President definitely used rhetoric that suggests he is not going to be an obstacle to at least this slice of entitlement reform. I feel good about the soft prediction I made two months ago.
- School choice – Trump’s comments on education were very uplifting. At the very least, the White House will use the bully pulpit to promote choices for parents rather than throwing more money into a failed system. It would be great if there was some follow-up, ideally leading to the abolition of the Department of Education.
- High-skilled immigration – I was surprised that the President said nice things about skilled immigration. Maybe this is a positive sign for the EB-5 program and other job-creating initiatives that are designed to attract successful investors and entrepreneurs to the United States.
And here’s what was negative about Trump’s remarks.
We’ll start with the five things that left me feeling somewhat pessimistic that we’ll have bigger government when the dust settles.
- Transportation infrastructure – The President wants a lot of money spent on infrastructure. Fortunately, he was careful not to say that the federal government will be the sole source of the new spending. But I worry that we’ll get a bigger and more wasteful Department of Transportation at the end of the process.
- Border-adjustable taxation – It’s troubling that Trump recycled the myth that foreign nations discriminate against American products when they impose value-added taxes on their citizens. It may be an indication that he will sign on to the misguided “border-adjustable tax” in an otherwise pro-growth House tax plan.
- Veterans – Trump said he wants to take care of veterans. That’s a good idea, and the ideal solution is to abolish the Veterans Administration. I’m worried, though, Trump will simply throw good money after bad by padding the budget of a bloated and incompetent bureaucracy that rewarded itself with bonuses after putting veterans on secret waiting lists.
- Immigration – Notwithstanding the positive comments about skilled immigrants, his overall tone was very anti-immigration. Given that so many immigrant groups from all over the world prosper enormously in the United States (and thus generate benefits for the rest of us), it would have been better if he has a more welcoming attitude while focusing instead on restricting access to the welfare state.
- Pentagon blank check – President Trump gave a mixed message. He criticized the heavy cost of needless overseas interventionism, yet then urged more money for a bureaucracy-heavy Pentagon. Yet why spend even more money if there aren’t going to be any more nation building exercises?
What was really disappointing about Trump’s speech? Here’s my list of three things that were unambiguously depressing.
- Protectionism – The president seems determined to harm American consumers and undermine America’s economy. Let’s hope these policies don’t lead to a global trade war like in the 1930s.
- Childcare Entitlement – Federal subsidies have resulted in higher costs and inefficiency in health care and higher education. Trump now wants to cause the same problems in childcare. This won’t end well.
- Paid Parental Leave – When even columnists for the New York Times confess that this type of policy backfires on women by making them less attractive to employers, it’s bizarre that it would be endorsed by a Republican president.
So what’s the bottom line?
To be blunt, beats the heck out of me.
I wondered back during the campaign whether Trump is a big-government Republican or a small-government conservative. I contemplated the same question when he got elected. And also when he got inaugurated.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get bad policy over the next four years. But there’s no guarantee we’ll get good policy, either.