Trump's State of the Union was an effort to reach out -- but it's not going to work

  • President Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union speech to Congress on Tuesday night.
  • He sought to sell his controversial agenda to a broader audience than his base, focusing on the GOP tax law and on immigration.
  • I don’t think he’s likely to persuade people to come around to his immigration plans.

President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech was not the appeal for “unity” that the White House made it out to be in advance.

But it was a speech that looked beyond his base – one that took his existing, controversial agenda and sought to sell it in a way you’d expect from a president aiming for an approval rating of 55% instead of 39%. In particular, the president spent a lot of time arguing that people ought to like the tax plan he just signed and the immigration deal he has proposed – two major issues on which he has gotten on the wrong side of issue polling.

I don’t think it’s likely to work on immigration. It may work on taxes – and Democrats need to find some better messaging for people who are perceiving a material improvement in their financial circumstances, instead of dismissing the idea that anyone should care about a $US1,000 bonus.

On taxes, the argument was essentially: You’re getting a tax cut, and the tax cut is driving low unemployment and wage increases, and all that puts more money in your pocket.

He has a reason to repeat himself. Misconceptions about who will face a tax increase (at least in the first several years of the tax law) are most likely making the law less popular than it otherwise would be. The vast majority of Americans who pay income taxes will get a tax cut in 2018 because of the new tax law, but polls show many don’t believe this.

As for economic gains from the tax law, they’re not showing up in the macro data yet. Economic trends in 2017 looked a lot like trends in 2016, and 2015, and 2014. Wages are rising, but not yet materially faster than in the past few years. And since the economic benefits of the tax bill are supposed to be driven by expectations of low taxes, it’s not necessarily the case that benefits should arise only after the bill is signed.

That said, as Matt Yglesias notes, the status-quo economy means Trump has done better than a lot of critics said he would, when they warned his agenda would tank the stock market and the economy. And when the economy is good, you can expect any president to try to take credit for it.

What was new on immigration

On immigration, as usual, the president warned extensively of immigrants as a threat to public safety. Republicans harped on this theme in Virginia’s gubernatorial election last year, and not to great electoral effect.

What was more new – and more obviously designed to appeal to Americans not already supportive of the president on immigration – was an unusually lengthy defence of his proposals to change the system of legal immigration. I thought his arguments here were dishonest and not especially persuasive.

He said that under current law, “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” which isn’t true. Immigrants may sponsor only their spouses, children, siblings, and parents to immigrate – not distant relatives. And while parents may immigrate in unlimited numbers, current immigration law imposes annual caps on the numbers of siblings and adult children who may immigrate based on a relative’s sponsorship.

Immigrants and their spouses admitted through this process will eventually be able to sponsor their own siblings, children, and parents to immigrate. This is what produces the immigration “chains” the president complains about, in which a person is ultimately able to obtain a visa because of an extended-family relationship: I sponsor my sister, who brings her husband, who sponsors his own brother, and so on.

But in practice, the length of these chains is greatly limited by the annual caps on family immigration, which result in long wait times for visa sponsorship, which are then followed by wait times for naturalization.

As Dara Lind explains at Vox, immigration authorities are processing immigration applications this month for siblings of US citizens that were filed in June 2004. The waits are even longer for countries that produce large numbers of immigrants to the US, like Mexico and the Philippines.

Because of this, my theoretical brother-in-law’s brother would be able to move to the US sometime around 2050, if we started the application process for my sister today. I’d have to wait more than a decade to bring my sister in, and then she’d have to wait a couple of years to bring her husband in, and then he’d have to wait a few years to become a naturalized citizen, and then we’d all have to wait an additional decade-plus to bring his brother along after him.

All that said, there are valid arguments for adjusting these rules and even for reducing the amount of family-based visas that are issued. But the president’s contention that prohibiting the admission of siblings and parents is necessary to “protect the nuclear family” makes no sense. If the president wants to contend other potential immigrants would bring more value to America, he should say so – but then the question would be why he’s seeking a large overall reduction in immigration.

Maybe the president’s goal here is not so much to sell his immigration plan so much as it is to sell the idea that he’s trying to cut a fair deal with Democrats on immigration, so if there’s no deal it’s their fault. But if that was his goal, he probably shouldn’t have echoed the over-the-top fear rhetoric about immigrants that recalls his extreme campaign.

The president pitched this immigration proposal as a “down the middle” compromise. That’s not true. The president would have to move substantially on questions of legal immigration to be making an offer with any appeal to Democrats; if he doesn’t, they will be able to correctly describe his proposal for a sharp reduction in legal immigration as extreme.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.