If there was a unifying theme to President Trump’s campaign, it was his pledge to serve America’s “forgotten men and women,” working people forsaken by the economy and Washington.
In his speech Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump presented himself as having made an aggressive start at championing the cause of working people, and promised a new era of rising wages, bustling factories and coal mines, sparkling air and water, and cheaper and better health care, all behind a “great great wall.” He told a few whoppers, but largely kept his eyes riveted to his teleprompter and his delivery subdued. He even opened his speech with a long-overdue condemnation of hate “in all of its very ugly forms.”
We heard again the same sorts of gauzy promises and assertions of a future Edenic America, a sort of Trumptopia, that characterized his campaign. He didn’t explain how he would get it all done, much less pay for any of it; indeed, it sounded at times as though he were still running for the job, rather than confronted with actually doing it. Across his first few weeks in office, Mr. Trump has shown little sign of delivering anything for working Americans beyond whatever satisfaction they may derive from watching him bait the Washington establishment and attack the reality-based media.
Mr. Trump likes to describe his chaotic first month as “promises kept.” Really? Remember how he promised during the campaign to “immediately” fix Obamacare and deliver “great health care for a fraction of the price”? He hasn’t even put a plan on the table. On Monday, he complained to the nation’s governors that “nobody knew” replacing Obamacare “could be so complicated.”
As in the campaign, Mr. Trump also promised Tuesday night to accelerate economic growth with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. “Crumbling infrastructure,” he said, “will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways, gleaming across our very, very beautiful land.” Sounds great. What’s the plan? How will we pay for it? He wasn’t saying. He also renewed his promise of “massive tax relief” for the middle class — but once again there are no details in sight.
It is very early yet in this presidency — though it sure doesn’t feel that way — and Mr. Trump may yet keep some of his proliferating commitments to Americans.
But the plans he has put forward so far, and the few actions he has taken, do not bode well. He proposes to cut the health, disability and job-training programs that working people, as well as the poor, rely upon. Mr. Trump’s first big initiative was a draconian immigration ban, now mired in court challenges, that’s caused problems for businesses from Silicon Valley to Wisconsin. Mr. Trump proudly noted Tuesday that one of the administration’s first orders froze federal hiring, but he seems unaware that those jobs aren’t only in Washington, they’re in communities across the nation.
Mr. Trump has successfully started a national assault on unauthorized immigrants — and it is already tearing families apart and disrupting businesses, and is likely to cost billions without improving the fortunes of the working poor. On Tuesday he dangled the possibility of supporting some form of “merit based” immigration reform that would make struggling families “very very happy indeed.”
Again, that last bit sounds really nice. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, so far, the only working people the president has really delivered for are members of his own family, who are using his presidency as a brand-building opportunity, and former campaign officials, who are cashing in as lobbyists in Washington.
Yet Mr. Trump has certainly not forgotten America’s “forgotten men and women.” The White House is assiduously stoking their fears, grievances and prejudices, and selling photo-ops as accomplishments in order to portray an undisciplined, unfocused president as “President Action, President Impact.”
Meanwhile, he and his aides have counted on the protests of Americans outraged by his antics to create the appearance of an activist presidency. The cable shows are always on in the West Wing, where Stephen Bannon loves seeing split-screen television images with Mr. Trump meeting business executives on one side and opposition protest rallies on the other.
Mr. Trump closed his address to Congress by recalling the historic accomplishments of “the country’s builders and artists and inventors” and imagining what Americans can accomplish today. It’s time for the American president to do his job as well.