US president Donald Trump goes to Capitol Hill tonight (Feb. 28) to address Congress, and his press team is already billing it as his “biggest speech yet,” an “optimistic vision” of his “bold agenda” touching on everything from health care reform to immigration to tax policy.
The White House is right. This is his “biggest speech” yet, with Republicans, Democrats, investors, and everyday voters alike craving more than just buzzwords now. They need to know that there’s more substance behind Trump than the shambolic, blustery first few weeks of his term would suggest.
At day 40 in the role, Trump’s approval ratings sit at 41%, a record low for a newly inaugurated president. Republicans in Congress who supported him are openly grumbling, the country’s wealthiest immigrant group is incensed with him, and he’s in the midst of heated battles with US intelligence agencies, federal judges, and the media.
Here’s what people want to see.
The “Trump rally” that started after he won the US election in November has sent US stock indices to record highs, and added nearly $300 million in market value to the big banks alone. But much of that positive sentiment is anticipatory; investors were buying on the assumption that once in office, Trump would quickly roll out promised plans for tax reform, and rein in bank regulation.
So far, there’s been little concrete there. Sure, Trump signed a memorandum on reducing banking regulation, but Congress needs to be involved in any serious changes. Border tariffs are still being argued, the realities of how a Trump trade policy will work on the ground are unclear, and there’s little visible work on a promise to reduce corporate taxes.
Part of the problem is the Trump administration’s lack of preparedness. In the past six weeks, the administration has nominated just 33 people for 549 open positions that require Senate confirmation so far, the Wall Street Journal reports, leaving it severely understaffed. If Trump’s speech tonight offers little more than the same campaign-trail promises, a growing number of analysts predict a serious stock sell-off on Wednesday.
After a remarkable grace period—remarkable considering the harsh words Trump had for some conservative GOP stalwarts on the campaign trail—middle-of-the road Republicans have started to openly question how Trump is leading, and are ready to make demands.
His speech tonight needs to address “knotty issues” like whether money “pumped into the Pentagon” will be offset by “reduced spending on domestic priorities such as early childhood education, biomedical research and clean drinking water,” congressman Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, writes in a bracing op-ed in The New York Times.
There are divisions within the party, as Cole notes. Trump needs to make tough decisions on issues like the border adjustment tax—and then take responsibility for these decisions. “Presidents must lead, and leadership will be required to meet the objectives Mr. Trump has laid out,” Cole writes.
On Feb. 27, conservative economist Peter Morici called for nothing less than a “reboot” of the Trump presidency, saying “a sense is emerging that the White House is not competent or sensitive to the complexity of effective decision-making.”
The GOP shouldn’t go so far as to expect Trump might address what he could have done differently in previous weeks, though. “There’s no introspection in this administration,” an aide to a Republican congressman recently told Quartz.
Tea Party Republicans
The Tea Party goal of quickly and definitively repealing Obamacare already seems like a fading fantasy, as GOP members of Congress continue to waver and angry voters fill town halls across the country, demanding the health care act be saved.
The White House seems without a definitive health care plan of its own, or a clear allegiance to the various plans floating through Congress—or even a basic understanding of what needs to happen next. “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” Trump said on Feb. 27, while raising the option of just letting Obamacare live on, to “implode” under its own weight.
Trump’s budget will add $54 billion to defense spending while cutting the same in government programs, previews of his budget plan show. But where exactly the spending will go, and what will be cut, is anyone’s guess, putting him on a collision course with deficit hawks like House speaker Paul Ryan.
Tea Party politicians and their supporters also are looking for specifics—dates and definitive goals—that underscore Trump’s pledge to repeal Obamacare, reduce the deficit, and simplify income taxes. “We’re looking for fundamental tax reform, broadening the base and lowering the rates,” said Jon Meadows, the spokesman for FreedomWorks, while allowing individuals to file on a “post-card sized piece of paper.”
Trump’s anti-government cabinet picks and anti-immigrant policies have galvanized Democrats, whether opposition politicians or everyday voters, during his first few weeks in office. His administration’s response mainly has been to accuse protestors of being hired guns, and negative polling numbers of being fake.
But the White House is promising a new approach tonight. “He will invite Americans of all backgrounds to come together in the service of a stronger and brighter future for our nation,” press secretary Sean Spicer said on Feb. 27.
Trump’s acknowledgment that he is governing the country for all Americans, rather than just the ones who voted for him, would be welcomed by Democrats. Addressing a recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents and the murder of an Indian engineer in Kansas by a white man who demanded the victim “get out of my country” would also be appreciated.
That may not happen, though. Trump’s guests at the speech will include relatives of three people killed by illegal immigrants to the US, a choice that sends a stronger anti-immigrant message than any of his words can carry.