Why you should care
Because the economy is more than the stock market and unemployment numbers.
As I watched President Donald Trump bask in the applause from the political establishment ringing off the marble-and-gold gallery of the U.S. Capitol and endure stone-faced silence from his liberal critics, I thought back to a frigid night 10 months ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
It was 2 a.m. and I was smoking with Moe Alkhateeb at his hookah lounge. A Jordanian immigrant who had moved to Indiana, married an American woman and started this small business, he was concerned by the president — namely by the then-recent executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. But he was also curious: Could Trump possibly help?
I know I hear all about the stock markets, but businesses like mine are shrinking. It’s been our worst year.
After all, Trump had promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better. Alkhateeb had watched his family’s health insurance costs triple in just a few years. The father of two’s deductible was so high he never spent enough to meet it. He had as much a reason to be wary as anyone. But he was willing to give the controversial president a chance, far from the only one amid the hundreds of people I interviewed while traveling the nation for OZY last year.
On Tuesday, as Trump gave his first State of the Union address, he lauded surging stock markets and a tax cut expected to benefit four-fifths of Americans. He listed companies that were keeping jobs in America and praised the value of standing for the national anthem. He took a victory lap on beating back ISIS and al-Qaida and took aim at North Korea next. He praised reform of the Veterans Affairs department, claimed to have ended the “war on beautiful clean coal” and took credit for getting “the Motor City revving its engines once again.” But on the issues most on American minds, he tellingly left more questions than answers.
Trump declared “the individual mandate is dead” but provided no avenue to decreasing costs and improving health care — one of the major issues for Ray Reynolds, a photographer in Martinsville, Virginia, who backed Trump after his mother and daughter passed away amid complications with their insurance under Obamacare.
Trump promised to “embark on reforming our prisons” and help former inmates “get a second chance,” a nod to criminal justice reform that has seen bipartisan support, from folks like Julie Emerson, a Republican lawmaker from Louisiana, and Sarah Catherine Walker, a Black lobbyist in Minnesota. Yet in the same breath, he vowed to get “much tougher” on drug dealers and pushers, a hard-on-crime method that has been proven to neither help the criminal justice system nor the drug epidemic.
True fixes were conspicuously missing on those issues — in part because the Art of the Deal author couldn’t declare victory on them. After years of Republican promises, health care reform didn’t pass the Senate, resulting in a gutted health care model, not a good one. Painkillers and heroin continue to hurt communities from Dayton, Ohio, to Burlington, Vermont, while Trump’s 24-year-old drug czar recently had to resign after The Washington Post reported he had fibbed on his résumé — calling into question the seriousness of Trump’s commitment to curing addicts, despite the lip service he paid Tuesday night. The continued investigation into Russian interference in his election, which he did not address, has hovered over his triumphs.
The economy has looked strong, with low unemployment and major companies announcing bonuses for employees after tax reform passed. Typically that would lead to high approval ratings, but Trump’s have remained low — around 39 percent in a recent NBC News poll, the lowest for any modern president in his first year of office. He attempted to make peace with his critics, offering an “open hand” to “members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed.” But judging by the many Democrats who remained seated during his proposed plans on immigration and infrastructure, he isn’t any closer to bridging this divided nation.
Against the backdrop of his promises, many of which he had made from the campaign trail before, it was hard not to think of Alkhateeb, who a year later is not better off despite being willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. “I know I hear all about the stock markets, but businesses like mine are shrinking. It’s been our worst year,” Alkhateeb told me Tuesday night. “The government health care, we can’t afford it. It’s so expensive. And it really is a pain.”
Trump can’t be expected to solve the problems he campaigned on in one year. But by celebrating stock market gains and regulatory rollbacks that benefit a relative few while ignoring or glossing over the deeper problems that remain, he has yet to make good on the greatness he promises again and again.