Don't be fooled by President Trump's superficial makeover

Meet the new President Trump: Tastes great, less filling!

A softer rhetoric and not much else.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool)

Call it Trumpism with a human face.

During Tuesday night's big joint address to Congress, President Trump showed his same old America First, Last, and Only impulses, but delivered them via a teleprompter, and thus with softer rhetoric. The snap polling suggests the public quite liked the measured man they saw in Trump's first big speech to Congress. And GOP lawmakers and pundits alike showered Trump with praise for appearing plausibly presidential, for once.

Sure, the only maybe memorable line — "Finally, the chorus became an earthquake" — owes its stickiness to its clunkiness. But these speeches rarely produce quotes for the ages. Looking for one perhaps takes you back to George W. Bush's "axis of evil" State of the Union in 2002, and then before that Bill Clinton "the era of big government is over' address in 1996.

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But while Trump offers improved performance at these political set pieces, the substance remains terribly lacking. He offered little leadership on reforming ObamaCare or tax reform, both efforts currently floundering on Capitol Hill. He again promised to "bring back" the jobs of an industrial America forever gone overseas or to automation. And he focused once more on solving problems that aren't really problems. Building walls. Blaming immigrants. Bashing trade. As I wrote not long ago here at The Week, "Trumpism is built around unworkable solutions in search of actual problems."

One moment that neatly encapsulates both the wrongheadedness and emptiness of the Trump agenda was when he lamented that "more than 1 in 5 people in their prime working years are not working." This is not fake news. Well, mostly not. But the claim is confusingly worded. The unemployment rate for Americans age 25-54 is 4.5 percent, not 20 percent, down by more than half since the worst of the Great Recession but still nearly a point higher than just before the downturn.

What Trump was actually referring to was the prime-age labor force participation rate, the share of the population either employed or actively seeking work. That stands at 81.4 percent, still stubbornly below its pre-recession level. Even more distressing is the prime-age male participation rate. It's among the worst of any rich economy. And the gap has been widening, particularly since the recession.

During his speech, Trump implicitly linked the depressed participation rate — and a host of other anemic economic statistics — to trade. Of course he did. But as a recent Goldman Sachs report recently noted, all advanced economies have faced job market disruption from trade, as well as technology.

So why might the decline in U.S. prime-age participation be so much larger? Goldman offers a numbers of potential explanations that make America special, but not in a good way, versus our international competitors. First, American middle-aged men use a lot of painkillers, especially opioids, and the mortality rate for for middle-aged men has been climbing. This suggests "more severe health and drug-related problems have contributed to lower U.S. participation,' according to Goldman. Higher U.S. incarceration rates also means criminal records make the job hunt more challenging. Third, Goldman concludes, the U.S. offers less help when it comes to retraining and job-search assistance.

Trump could have mentioned all those factors — as well as the possible impact of sharply raising the federal minimum wage during a near depression — and briefly talked about possible evidence-based policy solutions. Instead, we got the "the great wall along our southern border." Trump also failed to mention the job challenges posed by automation and how we need to better educate our kids and workers

What America saw on Tuesday night was a superficially kinder and gentler Trump — but a man who continues to spout the same old wrongheaded ideas. As the late Kurt Vonnegut might put it, this was just "old beer in new bottles."

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James Pethokoukis

James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he runs the AEIdeas blog. He has also written for The New York Times, National Review, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and other places.