Fletcher Professors Respond to the State of the Union Address
The Forum asked Fletcher professors to give our readers their responses to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union (SOTU) address. Specifically, we asked what was your biggest takeaway from the address and/or what are potential implications of the address on your area(s) of expertise? With the tremendous range of expertise among its faculty, it’s no wonder that the Forum received such a wide array of diverse responses.
"The President stayed on script and played to his base, by invoking peace through strength, closed borders, the 2nd Amendment, and the nuclear family. It remains to be seen if his call for unity is sincere. It is worrying to me that he demonized immigrants by equating them only with murder and drugs, and that he proudly proclaimed that Guantanamo will remain open – as if it is a badge of courage rather than a symbol of torture and shame. He continues to make his case by invoking “us versus them,” both domestically and internationally, and that is decidedly not a unifying message."
Eileen Babbitt, Director, Institute for Human Security; Professor of Practice of International Conflict Analysis and Resolution
"The student of African politics learns a few rules of thumb for assessing presidential speeches. Number one is that presidents make inordinately long speeches because they need to hear their own voice, because that's how they convince themselves that what they're saying is true and important. Number two is to beware of the personal anecdote or individual sob story, which are designed to make you assess the immediately-following policy proposal with your emotion, not your reasoning. Three is to shudder when a leader demands that the police and military deserve "total and unwavering support."
Alex de Waal, Executive Director, World Peace Foundation; Research Professor
"I found little in the speech worth hearing, reading, or discussing. As with most of Trump's formal speeches, the best advice is John Mitchell's (referring to Nixon's speeches): "Watch what we do, not what we say."
Michael Glennon, Professor of International Law
"President Trump argued that, since taking office, his administration has created 2.4 million new jobs, including in manufacturing. President Trump’s administration can hardly take credit for this development only one year later, and President Trump also did not describe any policy changes by his administration that would have driven this change. On a positive note, President Trump promised to improve vocational training and education. The US is lagging behind other advanced industrialized countries in offering good vocational training programs. As unskilled workers are increasingly falling behind in job security and earnings potential, improving vocational training and education will be key for many unskilled Americans."
Jette Steen Knudsen, Professor of Policy and International Business; Shelby Collum Davis Chair in Sustainability
"In the area where business confidence matters – non-residential fixed investment – the US did enjoy 6.3% real growth over Trump’s four quarters. But much of that realized investment would have been decided before his election. In this sense, 2018 will be more telling. Tax cuts will boost demand in 2018, so some supply response (faster GDP growth) can be expected. But unemployment is already low. More than stronger demand, the US needs faster productivity growth, which policies targeting education, training and infrastructure would address. Yet, only the last of these is offered with a hefty price tag of $1.5tn! How this can be comfortably financed remains a mystery in light of coming tax erosion and higher defense spending."
Lawrence Krohn, Professor of Practice of International Economics
"On rhetoric, Trump gets high marks for telling a story instead of cloaking his points in abstractions. Trump gave much space to depicting the brutal nature of the North Korean regime and, hence, the regime's growing lethal threat to the U.S. Pointing to the death of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student, and Ji Sung-Ho, a North Korean survivor, Trump put a face on the problem--Pyongyang's disregard for human life."
Sung-Yoon Lee, Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies; Assistant Professor at The Fletcher School
"Women lawmakers attending the address wore black to signify their stance against sexual harassment and assault. At a time when attention to the staggering levels of sexual harassment and assault in nearly all industries is coming to the fore, their presence was particularly powerful in the face of a President who has been accused of sexual misconduct with at least 17 women and who brags about sexually assaulting women. His own wife refused to travel to and from the State of the Union with the President. Women and girls deserve the right to a life without violence and degradation, to live in clean environments and receive health care, to control their own bodies, to their civil rights, to economic security, to work with respect and dignity, and to be paid fairly and equitably for their work. This President said nothing about these issues."
Dyan Mazurana, Research Director, the Feinstein International Center; Associate Research Professor
"President Trump’s first State of the Union address was a masterful performance by a masterful performer. He took full advantage of this opportunity to choreograph the Administration’s list of impressive first-year accomplishments and future agenda uncluttered by destructive tweets or fake news. He not only reassured his base but also attempted to reach out to the broader audience whose support will be needed for future legislative victories. Whether the deep partisan divide evidenced last evening can be bridged remains to be seen. His call to lift sequestration constraints on defense is welcome, although I would like to have seen greater emphasis on strengthening missile defense as a national security priority."
Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr., Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Security Studies
"In terms of foreign policy and national security, the [speech] was terribly light on specifics. He called out his typical bogeymen of North Korea and Iran, as well as warning of threats coming from China and Russia, but there were very few details. Perhaps the most specific policy calls he made were regarding his pronouncements to end the sequester on defense spending—basically a call to abandon the spending mechanism that has capped defense spending since 2013—and to bolster nuclear weapons defense. Beyond that, there wasn’t much on offer in the speech when it came to national security and defense."
Monica Duffy Toft, Professor of International Politics; Director, Center for Strategic Studies
"In comparison to his campaign themes, the address provided very little content on trade. In the campaign, he highlighted complaints about all the “very bad deals”, and promised to terminate some and engage in greater protectionism. In the President’s first year in office, there has been very little action in this field. In the SOTU address, there was only a mild call for renegotiation and greater reciprocity. This is a positive development and it seems to reflect growing recognition of the complexity of this area, and the reciprocal benefits that the U.S. receives from trade agreements. The dogs that didn’t bark: NAFTA or KORUS termination, new tariffs on steel or aluminum, and new trade confrontations with China."
Joel P. Trachtman, Professor of International Law