Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Donald Trump’s fill-in-the-blank State of the Union

President Trump’s top priorities were clear in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday: limit immigration, support the military and law enforcement, ensure the safety of Americans, and maintain our strong economy.
President Trump’s top priorities were clear in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday: limit immigration, support the military and law enforcement, ensure the safety of Americans, and maintain our strong economy.(Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)

By the end of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, President Trump’s top priorities were clear: limit immigration, support the military and law enforcement, ensure the safety of Americans, and maintain our strong economy.

But prime-time speeches aren’t always the right place for details, so it’s hard to know exactly how Trump plans to achieve these goals. In his year in the White House, the president has often tossed out big ideas, then left it up to others to fill in the blanks.

Here, issue by issue, is a rundown of the main proposals in Trump’s speech, along with some questions he’ll have to answer if he hopes to turn his vision into reality.



The most concrete proposal of the night involved immigration policy. Trump laid out his four-pillar plan to secure the border, limit family reunification (aka chain migration), give new preference to high-skill immigrants, and create a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.

Democrats have already heard and rejected this plan, unwilling to give the president billions for a border wall and accept a radical change in immigration policy in exchange for a deal on DACA.

So the real question here is whether there is any room for compromise.

Congress has just a few weeks to reach consensus on a tweaked immigration plan that can pass both houses, and if they succeed, Trump may be forced to decide whether he’s willing to accept those tweaks — or whether the pillars he laid out Tuesday night are made of concrete.


More flexible was Trump’s appeal for “both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure.” And that flexibility could indeed pay off. With the right mix of planning and funding, infrastructure could still turn out to be the next big accomplishment of the Trump administration.


Except the White House has been promising a plan since it announced “infrastructure week” last June. Instead, what we know are mostly generalities: Trump is interested in partnering with states and private companies, but it’s not clear how much money states will have to front, whether struggling regions will get preference, or if the federal government would allow private companies the right to collect tolls and user fees.

Some Democrats might be willing to deal, but it’s hard to make progress until the president shares more about his preferences and restrictions.

Opioid crisis

“Scourge” is the word Trump used to describe America’s opioid crisis, pointing out that seven people now die of drug overdoses every hour. To help, he pledged support for treatment alongside a crackdown on dealers.

This pledge, however, stands in stark contrast to his record. Thus far, the Trump administration has provided no significant funding to fight opioid abuse, despite declaring a “public health emergency.” And his budget proposal — which was not adopted — would actually have cut funding for prevention and decimated support for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Money isn’t everything, to be sure, but public health experts have been calling for tens of billions over the next decade to aid struggling states and overrun clinics.

Prescription drugs

Since his campaign days, Trump has talked about curbing the cost of prescription drugs. And again Tuesday night, he called it “one of my greatest priorities,” noting that “in many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States.”


But there’s a reason drug prices are lower in other countries: most of them negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies to force the price down. Candidate Trump actually floated that idea, but as president he hasn’t pursued it — nor has he embraced any other specific plan for reducing drug prices.

Paid leave, workforce training, prison reintegration

In quick succession, Trump endorsed a number of policies more generally identified with liberals, calling for America to invest in “workforce development and job training,” support “paid family leave,” and ensure that prisoners who have served their time “get a second chance.”

With just a moment or two spend on each of these, it’s not clear how much political capital Trump is ready to spend. But a push in any of these directions would likely meet with eager ears, on the Democratic side of the aisle.

And in each case, there are working models to emulate, provided there is enough funding available to scale them nationally.

Last thing: what about the stuff he didn’t mention?

To fully gauge the president’s priorities, you need to look not only at what he says but also what he passes over. And last night’s speech included some notable omissions.

Like the deficit. Not once did Trump mention the nation’s growing deficits and ever-widening debt, which is often a top-line talking point for Republicans.

Neither did he talk about the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia, nor the possibility that he might have obstructed justice. He’s called reports of both “fake news.”


These, ultimately, may be the real unanswered questions of the evening, more consequential to the state of our union than anything Trump could fill in about his plans on immigration or prescription drugs.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz