by Joseph Braude*
STATE OF THE UNION: A FOCUS ON DOMESTIC CONCERNS
The President’s State of the Union Address, delivered on January 30 to a joint session of Congress, dwelled primarily on domestic affairs. Trump touted his economic achievements over the past year, hailing the creation of 200,000 manufacturing jobs and his sweeping tax reform bill. He noted that wages have begun to rise in the U.S. after years of stagnation. He asked Congress to back his plan for a $1.5 trillion nationwide infrastructure project which he said would rehabilitate grids and roads and create new jobs. He also reiterated demands for an overhaul of the system of immigration to the United States. Under his proposed plan, border security would be expanded and the path toward citizenship for non-American minors residing in the country would take approximately 12 years. Foreigners with high-level education and greater financial assets would be prioritized over other citizenship applications. Family members of existing immigrants would cease to enjoy a legal advantage over applicants who lack such ties to the interior.
With respect to foreign policy, which played a secondary role in the speech, Trump dwelled significantly on North Korea. He noted the severity of a potential North Korean nuclear threat to the American homeland: “We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening,” he said. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.” As a deterrent measure, he called for “moderniz[ing] and rebuild[ing] our nuclear arsenal,” and criticized the North Korean regime over its human rights violations. Trump also reported that he had signed an executive order to maintain the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Reiterating his stance on a long-brewing debate over whether to treat terrorism as predominantly a matter of law enforcement, Trump said, “Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are.”
With respect to ISIS, Trump asserted that the U.S. had scored a victory in that an American-led coalition had “liberated almost 100 percent of the territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria,” then called for continued struggle. Linking the ISIS discussion to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, he touted “new rules of engagement” for American troops whereby “we no longer tell our enemies our plans.” (Some media observers of the speech noted the conspicuous absence of any reference to Pakistan, a country from which Trump has threatened to withhold $255 million in American aid.) Finally, with respect to Iran, the President expressed solidarity with anti-regime demonstrators and called on Congress to amend the Iranian nuclear deal.
Public reactions to the speech fell predictably along partisan lines. Some survey data suggested, however, that the President may have scored a net gain in public esteem. A CBS News survey, for example, found that 75 percent of Americans liked the speech. This indication of support seemed to be consistent with findings by Monmouth University through a poll of 806 American adults that mostly preceded the speech. It found that the President’s job approval rating had climbed to 42 percent — up ten points from Trump’s all-time low of 32 percent in December.
THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION: DUELING CONGRESSIONAL MEMOS
The Trump White House continues to face legal and public pressure over allegations it colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 presidential elections. As special counsel Robert Mueller builds his investigation into potential legal violations, the President and his supporters have waged an aggressive response, including efforts to discredit the investigation.
Last week, the intelligence committee of the Republican-majority Congress released a four-page memorandum alleging that the FBI “may have relied on politically motivated or questionable sources” to obtain a warrant to surveil a Trump campaign advisor. It referenced in particular a politically tainted dossier generated by a private company on behalf of the Clinton campaign which has been shown to contain false information. The Republican memorandum was released with support from the President over the objections of intelligence officials and law enforcement — following an aggressive Twitter campaign fueled by conservative news media.
If the substance of the memo is true, it would weaken the credibility of the Russia probe and perhaps — in the eyes of some of Trump’s supporters at least — make it politically feasible for President Trump to fire Mueller. The document was meanwhile refuted in much of the media and challenged by Democrats as incomplete and dishonest. Democratic lawmakers proceeded to develop their own memo. As of this writing, the President is expected to allow the declassification and release of the Democratic memo as well but redact some of the content, which would likely spark a backlash of its own.
At this writing, there is also widespread public speculation as to whether Trump will agree to an interview with Robert Mueller in the likely event Mueller requests one. A senior member of Trump’s legal team has advised him to refuse — prompting heightened speculation that Trump has something to hide — whereas other senior advisors suggested he strike a compromise by responding to questions in writing. That was President Reagan’s response to requests to cooperate with a Congressional investigation into the “Iran-Contra” affair.
POLLING DATA: A SLIGHT UPTICK IN SUPPORT FOR THE PRESIDENT
Many Democrats are hopeful that in the forthcoming November midterm Congressional elections, voters will deal a blow to the Trump White House by ending the Republican majority in the House or Senate (or both). But recent polling data suggests that such optimism may be premature.
One reason lies in public perceptions of the American economy. According to a poll conducted in January by the Qunnipiac University, 66 percent of registered voters in the U.S. believe the economy is “excellent,” or “good” — both a 3 percent increase from the prior month and a record high in the popular estimation since the polling group began asking the question 17 years ago. If the widely held belief that Americans “vote their pocket books” holds true, then these figures bode well for President Trump in the forthcoming midterm elections. Some economists are forecasting a three percent growth rate for the balance of 2018.
Another substantial poll taken in 2017 indicates that some of the political issues Democrats have been emphasizing are not a major priority for most American voters. Notably, the investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian government officials was regarded by 0.5 percent of voters as their “most important issue.”
While President Trump’s job approval rating remains low, Democratic party leadership figures in Congress — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer — are even less popular, including among Democrats. Thus it would appear that Democrats stand in need of a galvanizing positive agenda, beyond calls to weaken the Trump White House.
As to Republican prospects to maintain their Congressional majority, much will be riding on the success of the economy. Though foreign policy matters generally figure less prominently in American voters’ concerns, factors that may effect public views include the nuclear standoff with North Korea, the outcome of the President’s heightened pressure for changes to the Iran deal, efforts to forge a new diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the challenge of stabilizing portions of Syria and Iraq that have been wrested from ISIS control.