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Trump's Speech Short on Domestic Policy Specifics

In his first joint address to Congress, the president talked a lot about improving infrastructure and health care but offered virtually no new details about how.

Trump Speech
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.
(AP/Jim Lo Scalzo)
In President Donald Trump's first speech before a joint session of Congress, he called for unity and made ambitious promises.

"Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed," Trump said. "Every problem can be solved, and every hurting family can find healing and hope. So why not join forces and finally get the job done and get it done right?"

But the speech did little to flesh out the specifics of the president's domestic policy agenda.

Trump castigated his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for nearly doubling the national debt, but several of the proposals in his speech would cost the federal government additional money. He vowed, in particular, to significantly boost spending on the military and infrastructure.

But although Trump boasted a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure, it wouldn't necessarily come entirely from the federal government. The White House is looking at loosening regulations and relying on the private sector to repair and build roads and bridges, not just new spending. In the speech, he called on Congress to pass legislation for projects that would be "financed through both private and public capital."

Democrats largely sat silent throughout the address, bolting from their seats the moment the president finished. When Trump repeated his call for Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he received a thumbs-down from at least a couple of Democrats.

Amid the uncertainty about what parts of Obamacare Trump intends to keep, he outlined several broad principles. The president said Americans with pre-existing conditions should continue to have "access" to health insurance, although that's not the same thing as providing coverage.

He reiterated his desire to abandon the law's mandate for people to purchase health insurance. He wants to replace subsidies with tax credits. And he said he would give governors "the resources and flexibility they need with Medicaid to make sure no one is left out."

As the nation's governors met in Washington over the weekend, however, several expressed concerns that federal health changes would result in the loss of coverage for many and impose greater financial burdens on their states.

Speaking before Congress, Trump quoted Matt Bevin, the Republican governor of Kentucky, as saying that "Obamacare is failing in his state." That was perhaps a pre-emptive strike against the official Democratic response to the speech, which was delivered by Steve Beshear, Bevin's Democratic predecessor who had been singled out by President Obama for praise in his 2014 State of the Union address for successfully implementing the health care law. According to Gallup, Kentucky has seen the largest drop in the rate of uninsured residents of any state since 2013, from 20.4 percent to 7.8 percent.

On Tuesday, Beshear noted that 22 million Americans who were previously uninsured, including 500,000 in Kentucky, had gained coverage thanks to the ACA.

"So far, every Republican idea to replace the Affordable Care Act would reduce the number of Americans covered, despite your promises to the contrary," Beshear said in response to Trump. 

Bevin campaigned on the promise to end Kentucky's health exchange and expansion of Medicaid, two central elements of Obamacare. But although he's made some changes to the health insurance programs, he has fallen far short of killing them. 

National Republicans, who have not been able to agree on a replacement plan for Obama's signature law, are now debating whether they've fallen into a similar trap as Bevin when it comes to repealing it.

During his address, Trump returned several times to the issue of problems caused by individuals who are in the country illegally. He said that lack of border security had created an "environment of lawless chaos," exacerbating problems with drugs, gangs and terrorism. He pledged to build a "great, great wall" along the nation's southern border.

Trump's announcement that he had directed the Department of Homeland Security to create a victims' advocacy group called VOICE (Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement) garnered audible groans and gasps from Democrats.  

On economic policy, Trump praised major corporations, such as Ford and Walmart, for announcing new investments and hiring since his election. He noted that he is creating deregulation task forces inside of every federal agency. 

Trump said that his economic team is working on a sizable cut in the corporate tax rate. "It will be a big, big cut," Trump said. He also promised "massive" tax relief for the middle class. 

Trump noted that other countries slap high tariffs on American goods, such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles. While he laid out the case for tariffs -- which are now being described as border adjustment taxes -- he did not endorse any specific proposal outright. 

Like his tax agenda, many of the president's promised policy changes remain works in progress. Although Trump has pledged a sizable increase in military spending -- with concomitant cuts to domestic programs -- the administration has not yet fleshed out all the details. And it's not yet clear to what extent Congress will share his priorities.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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