Washington Wednesday: State of the Union

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 6th of February, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

It came a week late, but the State of the Union address finally took place last night. President Trump spoke for 1 hour, 22 minutes—the third-longest State of the Union in history.

He bookended his remarks with calls for unity.

TRUMP: Victory is not winning for our party. Victory is winning for our country.

In between, the president touted economic numbers, and legislative successes. Those included criminal justice reform, VA reform, and bills to combat the opioid epidemic.

He called on Congress to approve the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement and pass prescription drug price transparency. He also made the case for a barrier on the southern U.S. border, but he did not declare a national emergency to fund it.

TRUMP: Simply put, walls work, and walls save lives.

On foreign policy, President Trump defended his plans to bring home troops from Syria and Afghanistan. He also announced his next summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place at the end of this month in Vietnam.

On the pro-life front, President Trump made a bit of history. He became the first president to use the State of the Union to call for Congress to pass a ban on late-term abortions.

TRUMP: Let us work together to build a culture that cherishes innocent life.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams delivered the Democratic response.

She didn’t talk much about the president’s speech directly, but she did take issue with his economic and immigration positions. She said compassion at the border is not the same as open borders and reiterated Democratic opposition to any kind of wall.

Joining me now to talk about last night’s State of the Union is Professor Mark Smith. He’s director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. Professor, thank you for being here.

MARK SMITH: It’s good to be with you. I appreciate the opportunity.

EICHER: Well, this was President Trump’s third address to a joint session of Congress. The first one was not technically a State of the Union address, but still—this was the third time he’s appeared in a setting like this. So I wonder, how’d you think last night’s speech went compared to those first two?

SMITH: Well, I think the big question coming into this speech was the tone the president was going to strike. I mean, we just had midterm elections where the Democrats have taken over the House of Representatives. The president’s agenda is going to be stalled to some degree, so the question for me is whether this is going to be a conciliatory address where he’s going to maybe try to reach some bipartisan agreements or whether this is going to be more of an overt effort, let’s say, to rally his own base and to sort of tilt toward 2020.

And so just listening to it, I think honestly it was a little bit of a mixed bag of both of those things. Opening and closing, there was a fair bit of bipartisan rhetoric, but in the middle it was pretty sharp and it was pretty barbed.

EICHER: This week I saw Politico had a story on how even some of the president’s critics have conceded that some of his unorthodox—shall we say—foreign policy moves have turned out to be very effective. The story specifically cited the peace deal in Afghanistan. It cited Nicolás Maduro teetering in Venezuela, and North Korea’s suspension of nuclear tests.

Last night President Trump gave a pretty strong defense of his approach around the world. Did you see that part of the speech as effective?

SMITH: Yeah, I think that it was effective. Generally, when we look at American politics, when the president is active in foreign affairs, the rest of the country tends to rally around with support the president. And I think the same has been true for the most part for Donald Trump’s presidency.

One of the big questions when he walked into the Oval Office was, given his lack of experience, would foreign policy really be something of a disaster. As you know, constitutionally the president has the most latitude over foreign affairs. He can make a lot of independent decisions without congressional support or approval, and so I think there’s a good bit of fear about President Trump. But I agree with what you suggested. I mean, his presidency so far has been relatively stable in terms of foreign policy. He hasn’t done a lot to really rock the boat.

I think probably the two areas where you do see some disagreements or at least some changes based on the past would be his approach to NATO. He’s been a lot more aggressive with our own allies in NATO. And then also I think his approach to North Korea has been quite different as well. Those are big deals, but outside of those, it has been a pretty stable, typical foreign policy presidency in many ways.

EICHER: Well, you mentioned a mixed bag and of course it included things like the wall. He talked about border security. And so I noticed this week, though, that  Gallup did a survey and reported that 60 percent of Americans oppose significantly expanding the existing US-Mexico border walls. Forty percent percent in favor.

Do you think that what he said and the way he said it won over any skeptics last night?

SMITH: You know, I don’t think so. I think the president had an opportunity to maybe present the wall issue and the border issue in softer terms—maybe to seek for some common ground and some sort of an agreement that could be struck with Democrats or with moderates—and the president didn’t really make any effort to do that. He really used very sharp and strong language when he talked about the border wall and immigration.

He referred repeatedly to crime and criminals and murderers and other elements, and I really think he used pretty heightened rhetoric when it came to that. And so I don’t think it will have the effect of persuading anyone.

But that isn’t all his fault. I mean, President Trump is a very polarizing political figure, and I’m not sure there’s much room for him to persuade many people at all on most issues, because I think most people have very strong opinions of him one way or the other. So I’m not sure how much movement there could possibly be in polls right now on Donald Trump.

EICHER: Well, I’m going to ask anyway. Back onto the subject of polls, I mean, the economy is humming, unemployment is at 4 percent and probably will be a lot lower—hoping there won’t be another government shutdown—but crime is down, illegal immigration has been declining for a decade. And yet polls show about 60 percent of the country says we are on the wrong track as a country. Do you think the president did anything at all to move that needle—to give people a sense of optimism?

SMITH: I think in the parts of the president’s speech where he dealt with the economy and, as you said, where he dealt with things like unemployment, it was pretty strong ground. He had a lot of support from even Democrats in the chamber. And so it’s definitely the strongest part of his argument.

But if you look at it historically, when you see an economy like the one we have right now, we would expect the president’s approval rating to be in the 50s or mid-50s or high-50s. The president’s approval rating is still hovering in that low-40s area, and he can’t seem to quite get over that.

And so generally a strong economy makes for a great argument from a president. The president tried to make that argument tonight. I think he did it well, but I think so many other things are sort of sucking the oxygen out of this debate right now that the economy almost seems to be an afterthought. And that’s unfortunate in some ways. But I think it’s descriptive of where we are.

EICHER: Alright, well, good of you to give us some time this morning. Mark Smith is a professor at Cedarville University. Professor, thank you so much for your time.

SMITH: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

(Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool) President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Mike Pence, left, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look on. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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