View from Washington: Trump's joint address to Congress

The President's speech has been praised for its tone, but it told us little we didn't already know.

Many looked to President Donald Trump’s joint address to Congress yesterday (Feb 28) not so much for policy detail as an overdue sense of policy coherence.

Various ideological labels have been attached to the US president. Part of the problem is that a good few can be made to fit, even explicitly contradictory ones.

For example, those who see Trump as a tax-and-spend, big government guy need look no further than his $1tr plan to reinvigorate US infrastructure. However, those who want a tax-cutting, small government leader can equally point to a commitment to cut red tape and the ‘deconstruction’ beloved of his chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Such contradictions can exist during a campaign, much less so when you get into office. In terms of policies now actually in hand, there is an obvious tension between wanting to slash the size of the State Department (the US Foreign Office) by more than a third while pushing forward with an infrastructure plan that is likely to spread across and expand many federal departments, requiring thousands of administrative staff.

Likewise, Trump plans a massive increase in military spending, yet intends to effectively shed the mantle of ‘Leader of the Free World’ pinned to the US Presidency since the 1940s.

“We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations,” he said on Tuesday. “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.”

Wouldn’t that require less stuff that goes ‘bang’?

As is often the case with Trump, he seems to have decided that the best way to deal with issues that surround the contradictions in his policy locker is to ignore them. The joint address (like later States of the Union) should set out what the President sees as a broad and achievable legislative agenda for the year ahead. This was little more than a reworked campaign speech jogging through a familiar rag-tag set of political promises, the significant difference being a welcome removal of stridency and spitefulness. The tensions between various policy goals remain.

Ultimately, there is no dodging the problem. Trump’s administration needs to start moving legislation through Congress. An early Bill will likely address individual and corporate tax reform that the President wants voted on and enacted before the Summer recess. However, he seems equally keen to get his infrastructure plan moving, raising questions as to how politicians on Capitol Hill will themselves resolve voting for tax cuts on one side with such a potentially vast increase in capital spending on the other.

And then there is immigration. The speech included a nod to the kind of merit-based systems applied in Canada and Australia – but, again, the key H-1B scheme is essentially one of those anyway. What everyone wants to know about is the future size of the quota.

The US engineering sector is watching all of this very closely. Though technology is said to have a fraught relationship with this President, it is worth again remembering that fiscally and in terms of public spending (and alongside infrastructure, don’t forget that defence budget hike) the sector also has a lot to gain.

However, as is still the case more widely, it is far from clear how big that gain might actually be. Although Trump seems to have drawn plaudits for the joint address and a more statesman-like approach, we are all still waiting for his hyper-efficient CEO as President persona to emerge.

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