President Trump on Tuesday night will call for a $1 trillion infrastructure program, “fair” trade policies, a wall along the Southern border, a shift to merit-based immigration, a dramatic increase in military spending, and action to combat the national drug epidemic.
If that all sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it is: Trump issued each of those exact proposals in his first speech to a joint session of Congress last year, and in the nearly 11 months since, he’s made little progress toward accomplishing them.
A State of the Union address is a president’s best opportunity to lay out his agenda to the public, to make an unfiltered case for his policies, and to exhort Congress to enact them into law. But the speech is only as good as the follow-through—issuing detailed proposals, implementing policy at the department and agency level, delivering a consistent public message, negotiating with lawmakers. And on that score, Trump’s record is mixed.
During Trump’s first address in the Capitol—which was not technically a State of the Union because he had only taken office five weeks earlier—he said he would be asking Congress “to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States—financed through both public and private capital—creating millions of new jobs.” Nearly a year later, lawmakers are still awaiting such a plan. Trump issued only a cursory outline of an infrastructure framework alongside his budget proposal in the spring, and after months of delay, administration officials have said he’ll be making a more detailed announcement on Tuesday night.
On trade, the president has repeatedly warned that he would withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement and threatened to impose border taxes and tariffs. But until last week, when Trump imposed a 30 percent tariff on solar panels, his administration had taken no major concrete actions to back up his words. Earlier in 2017, the White House had prevailed upon House Republican leaders to drop a proposal for a border adjustment tax as part of its much larger tax package approved in December.
To Trump’s credit, he has kept up a steady drumbeat calling on Congress to plus up military spending, fund his border wall, and overhaul the nation’s legal immigration system. But the fact that he will be making the same pleas again a year later only underscores that he has little to show for it despite Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. The president won an initial infusion of funds for the Pentagon last spring, but the bulk of his request has stagnated amid a broader budget fight in Congress. Lawmakers ignored his request for wall money last spring. And negotiators in both parties have blamed the failure thus far to enact immigration legislation on a lack of clear direction from Trump, who has vacillated on the kind of deal he would accept in exchange for protecting young immigrants from deportation. Only late last week did the White House release a detailed proposal that includes $25 billion for the wall, reductions in legal immigration, and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
There’s also been little follow-through in the president’s stated desire to combat the opioid epidemic. Trump promised to declare a “national emergency” that would free up federal dollars for the crisis, but he never did so; instead, he classified the epidemic at a lower level of alarm. And while he named a presidential commission headed by then-Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, his administration adopted only a few of its recommendations. Similarly, a promised infusion of funding from Congress has yet to materialize.
Another of Trump’s unfulfilled promises was not for lack of trying. He devoted a significant chunk of last year’s speech to the Republican push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which died after multiple attempts in the Senate. Indeed, the effort the president poured into the failed health-care push prevented him from making headway on other issues. And with the GOP’s slim, 51 to 49 Senate majority this year, any repeat pledge to repeal Obamacare in the State of the Union is likely to be brief. Trump instead might decide to claim a partial victory due to the elimination of the law’s individual insurance mandate in the tax bill.
Trump did have his share of accomplishments in his first year as president, including promises he made during his initial address to Congress. He won the speedy confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with several other conservative judges to appellate and district courts across the country. He signed more than a dozen laws rescinding regulations promulgated in the final months of the Obama administration, withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, and initiated—through executive orders and agency action—the repeal of regulations affecting a wide range of businesses across the government. The Trump administration was able to point to a drop in violent crime nationwide, although it’s unclear whether the president’s ordered crackdown on illegal immigration or the Justice Department’s decision to prioritize prosecution of gangs like MS-13 was a significant factor. Just as with the economy, Trump will claim credit for the gains even if it’s not apparent they were due to anything he’s done.
And in Congress, he won passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut, although that victory, too, came with a catch: Republicans fell short of the tax simplification they promised, and they abandoned the border tax that Trump endorsed in his Capitol address.
It’s hardly unusual for presidents to repeat past proposals in their State of the Union addresses. The speeches often resemble rhetorical laundry lists, and it takes time to accomplish much of anything in this era of political polarization and congressional gridlock. Barack Obama implored Congress year after year to raise the minimum wage, overhaul immigration laws, and, yes, invest in infrastructure without success. But with Republicans in control of Washington, Trump can’t blame an opposition party for the bulk of his agenda remaining undone. Without the follow-through of governance, the president’s words from the House rostrum on Tuesday night won’t carry very far, and we’re likely to hear the same repackaged proposals in another year’s time.