It is always jarring to see Donald Trump vested with the full honors and pageantry of the presidency. Never has the leader of the world’s most powerful nation been more clearly unequal to the job.
Still, his address before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night — the first of his presidency — was reasonably competent, at least by Trump standards. He didn’t sound obviously deranged, and he managed to adopt a somewhat dignified affect.
But substantively, his address neither gave a convincing account of how he might achieve any of his signature goals, nor did anything but paper over any of the ideological chasms in his party. Trump represents a party and a nation still totally confused about how to manage its affairs.
President Obama’s address in February 2009 makes for an instructive comparison. Each president faced a Congress controlled by his own party, and one which was united around a general policy direction but not on specific details.
But Obama had to deal with several simultaneous crises, including an economic emergency that quite literally threatened the integrity of the country. George W. Bush’s jaw-dropping failure of a presidency left Obama with smoldering craters in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cored-out bureaucracy, a collapsing financial system, and an economy in free fall.
And while there was much dissent within the party about policy, Obama and the Democrats managed to get the country back on two shaky legs, with a large Keynesian stimulus package and a firehose of free money to Wall Street. They further improved things with the Dodd-Frank financial reform package and ObamaCare.
Yet the Democrats did not fix the fundamental defects in the American economy that had led to the crisis — the product of neoliberal trade and deregulatory policy in which both parties had eagerly participated. The stimulus was too small to restore even the 2007 employment rate, let alone that of 1999, and Dodd-Frank was clearly far short of the fundamental restructuring of the financial system that was necessary. Worse, the administration actively enabled millions of foreclosures carried out with forged documents, by largely ignoring evidence of the crimes.
These failures created tremendous distress and disruption, from which Trump has gotten huge political mileage. But neither he nor his party have any but the slightest inkling of how to rectify the problems. He talks often about restoring manufacturing jobs and putting the government back on an “America first” basis. But that would be a complicated and involved task, requiring a serious intellectual grounding.
In his speech, Trump referenced Abraham Lincoln’s defense of protectionist trade policy, and lauded Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System. But when it comes to specific policy, he neither outlined a realistic replacement for ObamaCare, nor explained how his infrastructure spending plan would work. About the best he could manage was a regulation that mandates American oil pipelines be built with American steel. Meanwhile, his party is still lying to itself that libertarian economic policy written by and for the top 1 percent will finally unleash free market utopia, with jobs and insurance for everyone.
So policy-wise, the address ended up being a mish-mash of traditional Republican austerity, deregulation, and tax cuts, coupled to a few vague Trumpy flourishes on trade and internal development. There was no plan to fix the dry rot in the American economy, because there can be none given the political-intellectual status quo in the party.
The Democratic Party policy orientation in 2009 was ideologically unsound. But it was undeniably about a million times more competent and effective than what we’ve seen from Trump thus far, in terms of working to achieve its stated goals.
The Republican Party under Trump, by contrast, has both the wrong idea about what to do, and no agreement or plan about how to get there.