View from Washington: Policies? You want policies?

A long but anaemic State of the Union casts more doubt around Trump's policymaking skills.

After 80 often self-congratulatory minutes, President Trump wound down his 2018 State of the Union (SOTU) address last night (January 30). At least, it was only occasionally daft.

Important words did not make the final version - ‘fake’, ‘news’, ‘Antarctica’, ‘engineering’ and ‘technology’, to name five - but this was ‘nice’ Donald with the mainstream ‘nasty’ model kept mostly in check.

Local reactions are again confusing ‘statesmanlike’ with ‘salesmanlike’. I see why America is desperate for its President to start acting like, well, a president, but it does push it to heap such praise on Trump. The ‘nice’ Donald effect is more like almost being bamboozled into buying a timeshare but coming to your senses in time for a quick getaway.

So, unlike in the Obama years, engineering and high technology hardly featured directly. The main exceptions were Trump’s plan to renew the US nuclear arsenal and hints on the first stage of his long overdue infrastructure plan.

Regarding infrastructure, the President wants to significantly streamline the ‘permitting and approval’ process to no more than two years, and get $1.5tn funding in place.

“Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments – and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment – to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” Trump said.

There’s nothing wrong with the words there, but as is often the case with Trump, nobody is sure where he gets his numbers from or how they break down. Moreover, there have been rumours that his infrastructure policy wonks are taking another look at the private component. They had been keen to present strategies for public-private partnerships. The high-profile collapse of Carillion in the UK encouraged the rethink.

Another section of interest concerned immigration. Here technology workers are most likely to be concerned about plans to sharply constrict ‘chain migration’. This is the term Trump and other hardliners use to describe rights currently granted to immigrants to bring other family members to the USA, a process formally called ‘family reunification’.

“Under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” Trump claimed, incorrectly. “Under our plan, we focus on the immediate family by limiting sponsorships to spouses and minor children. This vital reform is necessary, not just for our economy, but for our security, and our future.”

As you may already suspect, ‘nasty’ Donald had by now started sneaking out from behind the carpet-length tie. Strangely though, he may find here that he lacks bite.

Even a good chunk of Trump’s Republican Party would rather Trump stopped labouring over family reunification, and using it as a quid-pro-quo for granting a path to citizenship to ‘dreamers’ (the children of undocumented immigrants, brought to the US while minors).

In engineering, the nationalities covered by family reunification are as cosmopolitan as the industry itself. The fear for recruiters is that tougher rules could discourage good candidates.

But for the Republicans, it is even simpler. They fear that if Trump gets his way on the issue, it could cost them the votes of one huge ethnic group – Latinos – for a generation.

Looking at the two focus areas raises yet more questions about how Trump’s White House is going about policymaking. There, and elsewhere, you cannot miss the woolliness of its agenda.

A year ago, Trump gave a Joint Address; some vagueness then was expected. The upgrade to a full SOTU comes after a president has spent a year in office. By then, his team is expected to have more of a handle both on how the economy is performing and what it expects to propose over the coming year. It's not meant to be quite as explicit a programme as that in, say, The Queen's Speech, but you still should expect a little protein in the menu.

This administration’s agenda seems to have advanced only slightly since taking office. The SOTU exposed that, because it felt like a Trump stump speech from 2016’s election. And even if his Cabinet turnover has been startling, at the levels below – where detail gets analysed and later presented to the potentates above – things have been more stable. Still much of the output still seems anaemic or wrongheaded. Yesterday’s 5G leak fits the same pattern.

In short, even when Trump gets something right.... OK, even when Trump succeeds in not haranguing the world with arcane nightmares, he still cannot disguise the dilettantish nature of his administration.

[picture: Getty Images]

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