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Trump's State of the Union Takes Hard Line on Government Workers

At one point in his address, the president seemed to call for abolishing civil service protections for federal employees.

Trump First State Of Union
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Trump treated his first formal State of the Union address partially as a victory lap, touting successes in cutting taxes, economic growth and addressing foreign challenges such as the terrorist group ISIS.

"There has never been a better time to start living the American Dream," he said during the nationally televised speech to Congress on Tuesday.

Although Trump and the White House had built up the speech in advance as a call for bipartisan unity -- and the president did call for the nation to come together, not only in times of tragedy -- the speech was pitched primarily to the president's base. He spoke in harsh terms about immigrants while alluding derisively to NFL players who have refused to stand for the national anthem as a protest against police brutality.

"The president paid lip service to bringing the country together tonight but continued to push the GOP's extremist vision of America," New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted.

Given both the tone and substance of the address, reactions fell along predictable partisan lines. That was most evident in the House chamber itself, where Republicans repeatedly stood to applaud, while Democrats sat not just stone-faced but often wearing sour expressions.

"We have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in the history of our country," Trump said. "We have ended the war on American energy and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal."

Republican officials around the nation embraced the president's message, echoing Trump's emphasis on job creation, deregulation and tax cuts.

"President Trump's address this evening further underscores our mutual commitment to lifting up all Americans by working to expand economic opportunity," North Dakota GOP Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement.

Trump went after federal workers, seeming to call for abolition of civil service protections.

"Tonight, I call on Congress to empower every cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people," he said.

Federal workers and their primary union, the American Federation of Government Employees, took immediate exception.

"I was particularly disturbed that the president chose to demagogue hard-working federal employees, who are already being asked to do more with less with every passing year in service to their country," said Mark Warner, a Democratic senator from Virginia.

Some took the comment as an attack aimed at law enforcement officials, who have become targets for congressional Republicans in recent days, and particularly at Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia.

"Did the president just authorize purges of federal employees who dissent?" tweeted Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfeld. "Not the America I want to live in."

There weren't many policy surprises in the speech. Since taking office, Trump has talked about providing $1 trillion toward infrastructure while offering few details. He has now upped the ante to $1.5 trillion, but such a sum would involve few actual federal dollars. An estimated $200 billion would be taken from existing federal accounts to spur additional spending from states, localities and the private sector. 

"Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments, and, where appropriate, tapping into private-sector investment, to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit," Trump said. "Any bill must also streamline the permitting and approval process, getting it down to no more than two years, and perhaps even one."

State and local officials welcome the idea of cutting red tape but are wary about a proposal that would shift costs onto them.

"Without a full financial commitment of our federal government, it isn't an infrastructure plan -- it is an obfuscation of the core responsibility that built our nation," tweeted  Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat.

While outlining a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children, Trump cast immigrants generally in a negative light, blaming them for terrorist attacks and "brutal" murders.

"For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities," he said. "They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans."

Congressional Democrats responded with audible groans to Trump's characterization of family-based immigration programs, illustrating the difficulty the parties will have in coming up with compromise legislation on the issue.

Other presidential proposals may be dead on arrival.

Trump called for support of paid family leave, but that idea has stalled in Congress. He talked about addressing the opioid crisis by getting "much tougher on drug dealers and pushers," but he has yet to outline a clear spending or policy proposal to tackle the issue, which he declared a public health emergency last fall.

Despite the failure of the congressional attempt last year to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act and reshape Medicaid, Trump claimed success in eliminating penalties enforcing the individual insurance mandate as part of the recently enacted tax cut legislation.

"We repealed the core of the disastrous Obamacare -- the individual mandate is now gone," Trump said. "Thank heavens."

The president made no mention of the national debt or federal deficits. After touting the recently enacted tax cut package -- he referred to workers receiving recent "tax cut bonuses" -- Trump called for increased spending on border infrastructure and security and the military.

Trump touted the low level of new unemployment claims while highlighting improved employment rates among blacks and Hispanics. He claimed credit for creating 2.4 million new jobs, including 200,000 in manufacturing.

Fact-checkers questioned a number of his claims.

In response to Trump's remarks that wages were rising after years of stagnation, PolitiFact noted that wages were rising during President Barack Obama's second term.

"By the most common measure, wages did go up for the first three quarters of Trump’s presidency, but they fell in the fourth, wiping out all the gains on his watch and then some,"  according to the site.

But the speech was warmly received by GOP officials.

"President Trump's #SOTU speech was good news for Arkansas as conservative policy changes in D.C. have led to tax cuts, increased wages, bonuses, deregulation, American companies returning to the U.S., and a year-long stock-market streak," tweeted GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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