WWS Reacts

WWS Reacts: Trump's State of the Union

Jan 31, 2018
Woodrow Wilson School

President Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union address on Jan. 30, touching upon issues related to immigration, infrastructure, the economy, health care, and national security.

We discussed his speech with experts from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, who shared their reactions below.

Q. President Trump explained how the coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by the group in Iraq and Syria. Is this true? Does this mean we’re making progress in terms of ending ISIS? What more must be done? 

“This is true. It’s a continuation of the trend that started some time ago. ISIS’s hold over territory in Iraq and Syria was never going to be sustainable because that territory had few resources, and the group was beset on all sides by more powerful foes, as my colleague Jamie Hansen-Lewis and I wrote back in 2015. Defeating the remainder of ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and diminishing groups claiming affiliation with it in other regions will require local cooperation and allies; it cannot be done from afar with airpower. So, while progress is being made, the next steps require more attention to the rhetoric and tone we use to explain our policies. Local allies in various places need to be able to tell their constituents that cooperating with the United States against ISIS is the right thing to do. The more that President Trump discusses policy towards ISIS in terms of defending narrowly defined U.S. interests, as opposed to protecting the Muslim communities the group is most directly targeting, the harder it will be to find those local allies and finally consign ISIS to the scrap heap of history where it belongs.

– Jacob N. Shapiro, Professor of Politics and International Affairs

Q. President Trump outlined his four-pillar immigration plan during his State of the Union. Democrats generally oppose two of those pillars, namely building a secure wall and ending the visa lottery program. What’s your reaction to the feasibility of his plan?

“Two components of Trump’s comprehensive reform deserve comment: the proposal to end the visa lottery system meant to increase diversity and the proposal to end all family reunification visas except for the spouses and dependent children of U.S. citizens. I have no quibble with ending the diversity visa, which was designed to expand the regional and national origins of U.S. immigrants. To quote former Census Bureau director Ken Prewitt, ‘demographically we are the world.’ In return, I propose beefing up immigrant integration programs so that all future green card recipients become proficient in English and begin the amazing journey of becoming an American while contributing economically, socially, and culturally to the nation’s vibrant social tapestry. The bipartisan Jordan Commission outlined the ingredients for building an Americanization movement for the 21st century; this report should be required reading for the U.S. Congress and, yes, the President of the United States. Trading diversity visas for a genuine integration agenda would allow the nation to harness a diversity dividend and bolster the economic contributions of immigrants, who are a significant part of the people who built the country. 

What I do object to is the misrepresentation of family unification "chain migration." President Trump claimed that ‘a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.’ That is simply untrue because the sponsorship categories are highly restricted except for immediate family members of citizens, which are the only uncapped visas. I well appreciate the claim that infinite migration multipliers resonate well with the anti-immigrant members of the President’s base, but the empirical evidence does not support his assertion. I know because I conducted the two studies of family reunification "chain migration" that the staff of Sen. Tom Cotton's (R-AR) staff used to develop their restrictionist argument. My focus was on the health care implications of rising late-age immigration, and I questioned whether the support requirements for parents could be bolstered to parallel those used in Australia, which charges around $45,000 for parent visas.

Pundits who vilify the term "chain migration" do not acknowledge that high skill immigrants — the beneficiaries of employment visas — are the drivers of family migration because they naturalize at very high rates, and in turn, avail themselves of the generous sponsorship privileges, including parents and siblings. I have no problem with eliminating the sibling and adult children visa categories, but in return, long visa queues created as a result of the family capped visas should be cleared so that already vetted immigrants can begin bolstering the U.S. economy rather than aging 10 to 15 years in a visa queue. Parents, too, should be welcomed, provided that their health care costs are covered by the sponsoring immigrant.

Marta Tienda, Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies and professor of sociology and public affairs

Q. How will the President’s address influence the public? Historically, was his State of the Union speech in line with past addresses? 

“The address won't have a big impact on the public. With a polarized electorate, a partisan universe of media outlets, and incredibly strong feelings about this specific divisive president — there is no reason to think that this speech will change much. Sure, there might be a temporary bump in the polls, but it won't last long. This did sound more like a traditional speech, certainly more than his tweets, but in the end, given the history of the past year, the person giving the speech, and not the speech itself, is what makes this different from the start.”

Julian E. Zelizer, Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs

Q. American workers are enjoying rising wages, according to President Trump. He also said that African-American unemployment stands at the lowest rate ever recorded. What do you think about these claims?

“Real wages finally started to rise in the last years of the Obama administration and have continued to do so in the first year of the Trump administration. The black unemployment rate, like all unemployment rates, has been falling since 2010. Its December 2017 reading is indeed the lowest in the database, which dates back to 1972. These are both excellent developments; any president would tout them. But no one should think there was any major change in the 2017 trend relative to the 2016 trend.”

Alan Blinder, Gordon S. Rentschler Memorial Professor of Economics and Public Affairs

Q. President Trump called for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill. He also called for the legislation to reduce the time required to approve building permits to as little as one to two years. What’s your reaction to this?

“America has major infrastructure problems. The American Society for Civil Engineers rates America’s infrastructure as D+ because it is in ‘poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life,’ exhibiting ‘significant deterioration…with strong risk of failure.’

As one example, the train tunnels used by passenger trains linking New York City and New Jersey entered service in 1910, were badly damaged by Super Storm Sandy, and, despite interim fixes and repairs, will have to be closed within the next 20 years. Around 750,000 people per day use the trains in the northeast corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., and these aging tunnels are already a key bottleneck, causing significant delays. Unless a replacement tunnel is in place, transportation from Washington, D.C. to Boston will be a nightmare when the old tunnels close. A trans-Hudson replacement tunnel (linking New Jersey to Manhattan with a tunnel under the Hudson River) has been described as the nation’s single most important infrastructure project, because of its significance to America’s economy. An earlier attempt to build and finance a new tunnel was cancelled by Governor Chris Christie in 2010, but in 2017 (based on a framework agreement reached in 2015) New York, New Jersey, and the Federal Government agreed on a funding package for a new tunnel project (and, indeed, part of this tunnel project has already been constructed under Hudson Yard in New York City.)

However, the Trump administration recently announced it would not honor prior federal commitments to cover part of the cost of the replacement tunnel — our nation’s single most important infrastructure project — claiming doing so would only be ‘a move toward even greater federal dependency,' thereby putting this project back in limbo. Trump’s got this backwards. A major portion of our nation’s tax dollars and jobs depend on the wealth created by that North-East corridor.  

President Trump singled out America’s infrastructure crisis, saying we should spend $1.5 trillion on it, which is probably the right order of magnitude. He also wants to reduce regulatory approval times for infrastructure projects to two years, all of which sounds good. But the big delay for such projects often isn’t the approval time, it’s the funding — that is certainly the big delay for the trans-Hudson tunnel. Also, since many of the required approval processes are local zoning and planning matters, it’s not clear what business it is of the federal government to tell the state of Kentucky, or whichever local authority, how to do its building permits and any such attempt would likely yield years of litigation as local governments push back on a perceived federal instrusion.

Trump also didn’t explain what he has in mind regarding federal regulators. Unless, of course, this is another pathway for cutting back on Occupational Safety and Health Administration, environmental or other regulatory frameworks for employee safety and the public’s health. And, above all, the Trump administration provided no details about how this massive expenditure would be funded. The Republican-controlled Congress — ever obedient to the Norquist pledge — will resist raising taxes. Moreover, courtesy of the recently enacted tax cuts, we are looking at record federal budget deficits that may reach $1 trillion per year. Even if the Trump administration tries to fund infrastructure spending with tax incentives, this will still just add to the deficit. So basically, we have a real estate developer’s promise with no funding model and no plan about where changes to the regulatory structure would be made. 

If the Trump administration is serious about rebuilding our infrastructure, it should start by recommitting to funding a portion of the new trans-Hudson passenger rail tunnel and other well-known national infrastructure priorities. Otherwise, at best, Trump’s speech is a joke on the American public; and at worst, a prelude to wasteful ‘highway to nowhere’ spending in Republican districts, combined with another round of tax breaks for the rich to fund this pork barrel with pseudo public-private partnerships.”

Steven Strauss, John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs & Co. Visiting Professor

Q: In his address, President Trump hailed the elimination of a penalty on Americans who do not purchase health insurance. Is this a smart move? Does it affect many Americans? 

“The penalty for the individual mandate was repealed in the tax cut legislation and will be effective in 2019 – an important point for people who are buying insurance this year, as the penalty is still currently in effect. It’s unclear what impact repeal will have. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that as a result of the repeal approximately 13 million fewer Americans will have health coverage by 2027 and that premiums will rise approximately 10 percent every year.  While the individual mandate was always the least popular part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), it was a central building block of the law, spreading risk across a broad pool of enrollees to help offset the costs of sicker patients and protect people with pre-existing conditions. Because of the anticipated increase in the number of uninsured and the increased costs for consumers, several states are talking about replacing the federal penalty with a state-based requirement for coverage. Stepping back, President Trump was taking credit for repealing a significant component of the ACA, but we have learned that the law is surprisingly resilient and likely to endure. Most notably, President Trump did not renew his call for repealing the ACA, signaling perhaps that Congress is moving on from broader repeal efforts and that the action will shift to the administrative front and the states.

Heather Howard, Lecturer in Public Affairs and Director, State Health and Values Strategies 

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.