My reactions to the July 31, 2019 Democratic primary debates (night 2 of 2)

I blogged yesterday about how most of the candidates promised the moon without a realistic plan to enact their proposals given the existence of Congress, the likelihood that Republicans will keep the Senate, and the existence of the filibuster. Many of the candidates (except Jay Inslee notably) did the same thing tonight, so I’ll refer you to that.

Instead, I tried to use tonight to watch for what we can learn from how the candidates answer the questions. What do the candidates reveal about how they perform under pressure, how they frame policy to elicit support from different constituencies, and their thinking styles (complex/nuanced vs. simple/binary), all of which are important governing skills, from how they answer questions about political policy.

On the whole, some of my various thoughts were:

  • In general, Joe Biden kept his cool and didn’t get flustered in the face of frequent frontal attacks from other candidates. He’s had a lifetime of practicing political exchanges and debates, and I think it came through tonight. He did a good job criticizing people’s records while treating them civilly as human beings. And he was more subdued than I would have expected. It makes me wonder how he’d debate Donald Trump if he gets the nomination and frame his campaign messaging to appeal to the Obama-Trump voters that he’d try to win back.
  • Kamala Harris had some strong moments and weaker moments. She got flustered and nervous when talking about health care, but she was confident and strong when talking about civil rights and criminal justice, as would be expected given her previous experience and policy expertise.
  • Julian Castro is smart and his answers suggest (to me, at least) an evidence-based, nuanced approach to politics and governing. His Latin America Marshall Plan is brilliant and his housing plan is admirable. His comments on the political ramifications of beginning impeachment hearings against Trump were spot on. It’s a shame he’s not getting more attention.
  • Cory Booker did about as well as I expected. He has strong answers to some questions and is a bit undisciplined on others. I don’t know that he’ll have much movement as a result of this debate.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Andrew Yang, and (to my surprise, I’ll admit) Tulsi Gabbard all did perfectly well, but I don’t know that any of them did anything that will help them be on the debate stage in September when the requirements are tightened up a bit.

On the whole, the candidates on the stage tonight were, on average, stronger than those on the stage yesterday (with the exception maybe of Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren). I agree with this take by Jennifer Victor:

 

Also, check out these informal candidate placement schemas by some of the writers at FiveThirtyEight that graph the various candidates along a left-vs-right ideological spectrum and an establishment-vs-insurgent/outsider spectrum:

My reactions to the July 30, 2019 Democratic primary debates (night 1 of 2)

In no particular order, except perhaps chronological:

  • The opening statements were interesting but not as useful as I was hoping for.
  • The first half hour or so of the debate had candidates debating the nuances of their health care plans. It’s important to keep in mind that unless Democrats keep the House (likely-ish) and win back the Senate (which is less likely), there’s no way they’re getting any major legislation passed. Given that, their answers are more useful to helping us discern their personalities, governing styles, thinking processes, etc. Where the candidate falls on the private vs. public healthcare policy preference spectrum may not be a good indicator of what will likely become law when they win, but is more useful to inferring what their theory of political change is and what they view to be the problems/solutions in the political system.
  • This was repeated on a number of issues: immigration, gun control, climate change, infrastructure, etc. etc. Candidate after candidate said over and over again “as president I will ensure that…” as if the need for bicameral Congressional approval wasn’t a thing. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good to hear their policy positions and I’m glad they have priorities and desires. BUT the odds of them passing any of these ambitions plans is slim to none unless Democrats win the Senate and nuke the filibuster. Then if they do that, though, they’ll likely lose Congress in the 2022 midterms because historically midterms are negative referendums on the incumbent president’s party.
  • Foreign policy was not addressed until more than two hours into the debate. This is a shame, given that presidents have much, much more leeway in foreign affairs than they do in domestic lawmaking. In my view, the increasing popularity of nationalist populism in democracies around the globe, democratic backsliding, and “illiberal democracy” is one of the single most alarming political trends of the last decade. I want to hear the candidates explain their thoughts on this issue: what has caused it and what can be done about it?
  • Bernie Sanders regularly uses populist rhetoric, similar to that of Trump, in framing his policy proposals. Bernie makes an enemy out of the 1% and “special interests” while Trump makes an enemy out of immigrants and a free press. Populism is not always associated with illiberal democracy and soft authoritarianism, but if often is. I hope, hope, hope that Democrats resist the urge to fight nationalist populism with quasi-illiberal economic populism. For her part, Elizabeth Warren didn’t go near as far as Bernie Sanders, but she regularly says that companies seeking to maximize their profits is “corruption.” I think it’d be more responsible to say “unfair” rather than “corrupt” as the latter implies “illegal” and that flirts with illiberalism, although not quite as strongly as does “enemy of the people” from Pres. Trump.
  • Congressman John Delaney likely won’t be in the next debates, but he played an important role in today’s debate: being the primary foil to Sanders/Warren’s economic populist proposals and idealist-yet-unrealistic proposals.
  • I’m glad that the requirements for the next debate will be tightened up a bit. Trying to get 10 different candidates to be able to discuss important issues to any degree of useful detail in under two hours is nearly impossible.
  • I didn’t really see anything that I think will shake up the race in a fundamental way in this debate. I’ll be surprised if polling numbers for any of these candidates budges much.
  • That said, these debates are useful in campaigns because they’re educational. They help voters think about issues and deliberate on their political preferences and opinions. That’s a good thing!
  • If you’re on Twitter, I also often live-tweet debates: @benjaminknoll28

Gen Z in the college classroom: how to best understand and teach the new generation of students?

I recently finished two books that offer some early evidence of the values and habits of the GenZ generation, those born in the late 1990s through the early 2010s. They are starting to enter college and for the first time my students will be of a different generation label than me. (Yes, it finally happened.)

These books are:

Some of the key take-aways about the Gen Zers from these two books include:

  • Coming of age during the global financial crisis of the late 2000s has often led them to be hyper-anxious about their future economic stability and security. “Getting a job” is the primary (if not exclusive) reason that most of them go to college.
    • “Happiness” tends to be equated with financial security and economic independence. That is the primary goal that they’re anxious and highly motivated to achieve before they reach 30.
    • They want practical, applicable knowledge and skills for job competitiveness.
    • The perceived need for college credentials has led to the accumulation of massive amounts of student debt, seeing it as a necessary step toward economic stability and self-sufficiency through a college degree, but has also been accompanied by widespread anxiety about the ability to ever pay the loans off.
    • Given these uncertainties, there is a general craving for predictability and order in an uncertain world. They are less likely to take risks than previous generations (fewer rates of drug use, teenage pregnancy, etc.) while simultaneously experiencing more anxiety about the future.
  • Digital natives — most have never known life without a smartphone. They are often constantly on their devices.
    • This has pros: easy and instant access to a world of information, being able to form social groups and find opportunities online, often becoming knowledge “specialists” rather than generalists.
    • It also has its cons: shorter attention spans, hyper-vigilance about online profiles, more difficult to foster interpersonal interaction skills, etc. It tends to produce rates of anxiety and depression at higher rates than previous generations.
  • Diversity is a given and to be celebrated, not a reality to be tolerated. About half identify as non-white.
    • Identity, including gender and sexuality, is considered fluid and self-determined.
    • To GenZers, the worst thing you can do is offend someone or make them think that you’re judging their self-selected values or identities.
  • Texting/instant messaging is the default communication method. Email is what adults do. Facebook is what they use to connect with older family and friends, but Twitter and Instagram are used to connect to peers.
  • They perceive effective leaders as those who can facilitate collective action and decision making to accomplish shared objectives, complex thinking, adaptability, interdependence. They want honesty and transparency in leadership instead of paternalistic information-shielding.
    • They do not tend to admire their bosses, religious leaders, celebrities, or political leaders.
  • They have grown up in a world where major institutions (economic, religious, political) have not produced many good results and have hurt the world in many ways, and so are skeptical of the virtue and effectiveness of institutions.

 

After reading these books, I am still ruminating on a series of questions regarding my vocation as a college professor:

  1. The culture of liberal arts colleges (and much of higher education in general) is to push back against the idea that a college education is merely an instrumental means to the ultimate goal of career preparation and economic security. We often explicitly remind students that becoming a well-educated person has its own intrinsic value as a step toward self-actualization and intellectual freedom, separate from whatever economic advantage it may give someone. But this research seems to indicate that economic security and “getting a job” is the top motivating concern and source of anxiety for the Gen Z generation. How should this inform the culture and values of our classrooms, syllabi, and institutions? Should it?
  2. To what extent is it the job of a college education to promote healthy technology skills and values? Should we be actively reminding students about how too much reliance on social media is associated with anxiety and depression? Should we be intentionally fostering healthier technology habits…? Or is that the job of some other institution (or at all)?
  3. How might we balance the very admirable values of inclusivity, mutual respect, and compassion that characterize the Gen Z generation with the need to teach and practice skills of argument, debate, and civil disagreement that are vital to democratic citizenship?
  4. Should college professors take the reality of shorter attention spans as a given and actively create lesson plans accordingly? Or should professors work to help students foster longer attention spans by designing lesson plans that require sustained focus for long periods of time?
  5. How should colleges and professors respond to increasing levels of anxiety and depression among Gen Z students that seem to be strongly related to cell phone use and social media? To what extent should our lesson plans and group discussion formats be designed to minimize student anxiety? Is anxiety management within the purview of college instructors? We often say that learning most often occurs when students get “outside their comfort zone.” How might this be effectively accomplished in a way that does not increase already-higher-than-average levels of anxiety and depression?

Discuss.

My reactions to the June 27, 2019 Democratic presidential debate (night 2 of 2)

Assorted thoughts and reactions, in no particular order or connective theme except loosely in terms of how the topics came up chronologically in the debate:

Good question from the moderators to Hickenlooper: asking him to clarify just what he understands “socialism” to be. In general, the Democratic party has done a poor job of answering charges of “socialism” from Republicans. He missed a good opportunity here. It shouldn’t be hard, but Democrats are gun-shy to argue the semantics of the word “socialism.” Given that it’ll be a key Republican talking point in the 2020 election, I think they should start trying.

So far Gillibrand has struggled to catch much attention or momentum. She used her first time to speak to try out a theme to help her stand out from the rest: saying that she’ll be the compromise candidate between the moderate liberals and liberal liberals. (It reminded me of 2007 when Bill Richardson said something like “Obama represents change, Clinton represents experience. With Bill Richardson, you get both!”) I don’t know that she was able to do much in this debate, though, to get more visibility going into future debates, which is a shame because she’s a sharp and talented senator.

Harris’s rhetorical strategy seems to be to tell stories (both in this debate as well as her stump speeches). All candidates do this, of course, but she’s doing it more effectively and frequently than the other candidates. This is smart. People are more likely to be persuaded by stories about people than data and policy details (as much as I love data and policy details…). Also, good for her for, respectfully but firmly, sharing an example of how she stood up to the Obama administration’s immigration policies on the Secure Communities program. And then BAM that was a gutsy move taking on Biden, respectfully but firmly, on the issue of busing using her own personal story. The other candidates were gun-shy in drawing sharp contrasts with Biden. She took the risk. Up until now she was struggling to get bandwidth between the 300 different candidates but my strong hunch is that now she’s going to own the headlines for the next week. Good for her! 

Buttigieg’s first answer was interesting, emphasizing that “it should be affordable not to go to college.” He later deliberately drew a connection between faith/religion and immigration. He is intentionally deciding not to make coastal secular liberals his primary constituency and to emphasize how he might be appealing to the Obama-Trump voters. Also, he singled out a very important geopolitical issue: China’s authoritarian system and how it’s increasingly gaining in popularity worldwide in comparison with America’s democratic political system that seems so “chaotic” lately (as he put it). Also, when asked about their ONE first issue that they’d do on Day One, his answer matched what I would have said: electoral reform.

In the first half of the debate, Sanders came off to me as even more aggressive and domineering than he did even in the 2016 primary debates against Hillary Clinton. He used his loud voice to wedge himself in and talk over those standing next to him, especially Harris and Gillibrand, several times. I’ll admit: this reminded me of Trump’s style in the 2016 GOP debates against his primary opponents. That said, in the second half he pulled back and his demeanor changed significantly.

I think Biden had a bad night compared to what he was hoping for. He’s leading by a lot in the polls and it’d be easy for him to coast to the nomination, but he didn’t have any strong “break out” moments and didn’t have a great response to Harris’s point about busing. If he weren’t the former vice president, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish him much from any of the other generic moderate Democrats in the race. And I say this as someone who has a lot of respect for him as a former U.S. vice president to Barack Obama for eight years.

This debate format (10 candidates, 2 hours, 45-ish seconds per answer per candidate) is ridiculous and not very useful. I’m glad that the DNC will be tightening up the qualifications for participation in the next round of debates a little bit. This needs to get narrowed down and fast. 

While it’s difficult to have a substantive policy debate with this type of format, it is useful for revealing how candidates perform in a high-stress/high-stakes situation, which gives clues about how they might keep calm under pressure, respond to the “3 AM phone call” with a foreign policy crisis, and maintain a cool head in a highly-stressful environment. Harris, Gillibrand, Biden, and Buttigieg struck me as having a stronger performance on this end. Sanders did not.

Policy questions are great, but this debate format is an ineffective forum to have a productive discussion on policy details AND unless they get a Democratic Senate, none of them are going to be able to get much movement on any of these policies anyways. Better debate questions might be: “tell about a time when you had to make an exceptionally difficult decision” or “what would you be willing to give up in a compromise with Senate Republicans to achieve your key policy goals?” or “how do you deal with stress and anxiety?” or “what values would you prioritize and promote on the global stage as U.S. president?” 

I didn’t see much tonight to justify further consideration of: Williamson, Hickenlooper, Bennet, Swalwell, and Yang. For Hickenlooper and Bennet, it’s a bit of a shame. They’re both smart and talented public servants, but I didn’t see much to justify the “added value” of continuing to have them in the debate.

What do I want to see the candidates talking about? RANKED CHOICE VOTING FOR FEDERAL OFFICES! That one single electoral reform could do more to help reduce polarization and improve the quality of our democratic politics than anything else that anyone is talking about right now. Pete Buttigieg comes closest to talking about it, but because it’s not a sexy issue, no one is putting it high on their list. It’s a state-level issue, but the federal government could certainly incentivize states to adopt ranked choice voting for federal offices by use of grants or other means.

My reactions to the June 26, 2019 Democratic presidential debate (night 1 of 2)

A few things right off the bat:

  • Presidential debates are generally more educational than they are persuasive. In other words, they are more effective at helping voters learn more about the candidates and their platforms than they are changing people’s minds about which candidate they support. That said, early primary debates tend to be both educational and persuasive because fewer voters have well-formed opinions about the various candidates. Given that, primary debates are arguably more useful to voters than general election debates.
  • The media narrative that emerges in the days following the debates is often more influential on opinions toward the candidates than any specific thing that the candidates say. So I’ll be curious to see how this is spun in the next 24 hours.
  • At this point in the game, most people paying attention are those with high levels of political interest and political activists in early primary states, so candidates are framing their arguments as much for the party activists and highly-engaged voters as potential general election voters at this point.

 

The first twenty minutes or so was a round-robin on assorted policy questions. In one way or another, most of the candidates emphasized something designed to appeal to the working class in rural parts of the country (strengthening unions, manufacturing jobs, green energy jobs, etc.). This suggests to me that an early shared strategy among whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will be focusing on winning back those Obama-Trump voters that proved pivotal in the upper-midwest to winning the Electoral College.

The next section focused on health care plans. Given that none of them will be able to get their plan passed unless Democrats win the Senate and keep the House and eliminate the legislative filibuster (or ram through another health care bill using the Senate reconciliation process like Obama did with the ACA), this question is more useful to show the general governing philosophy of each candidate. Warren and de Blasio both enthusiastically said “sure, let’s eliminate private health care systems and move everyone over to a government plan in 4 years” while others (Klobuchar, Delaney, etc.) focused on the reality that such a goal is very, very, very, very unlikely to happen given the political realities of our current system, and so have less-ambitious-but-more-likely-to-pass incremental proposals. This suggests how they’d approach governing strategies in other pursuing other legislative goals or societal problems.

Nobody had a great answer for what they would do if Republicans keep the Senate in terms of getting their policy platform passed. Warren’s answer that “the fight goes on” means, I’m inferring, mobilizing public opinion to put pressure on Congress to pass her plans. While logical, all recent political history suggests that this is very, very unlikely to be a successful strategy. Delaney and Klobuchar emphasized that they would deal with a Republican Senate by proposing measures that some Republicans might actually support, although due to partisan polarization congressional Republicans will likely oppose whatever a Democratic president proposes. On principle, I support getting rid of the filibuster altogether (regardless of which party is in control of the Senate), which Castro and Booker both seemed to tacitly endorse and Inslee explicitly endorsed.

Did any of them stand out or differentiate themselves? Meh. They all more or less agree on most things and have similar policy proposals on things like income inequality, immigration, climate change, etc. The health care policy contrast was interesting for what it suggested about governing style, same with the questions about the filibuster and getting a legislative agenda passed.

Of the various candidates polling near zero, I didn’t see much in the debate to persuade me to invest more time in: Ryan, de Blasio, Inslee, Gabbard. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about Delaney before the debate and his answers were generally more impressive to me in terms of policy details, pragmatism, clarity, etc. Also, Julián Castro should be getting more support than he currently is: he’s a solid candidate with strong policy credentials and political skills. Otherwise, I thought that Warren, O’Rourke, Klobuchar, and Booker more or less maintained the status quo, but the media narrative that emerges on Thursday may change that. 

 

Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 1

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[Photo credit]

TL;DR: on the eve of the first round of Democratic 2020 presidential primary debates, I’m putting Harris, Booker, and Buttigieg in Tier 1, Klobuchar and Biden in Tier 2, Warren in Tier 3, and O’Rourke and Sanders in Tiers 4 and 5, respectively.

 

A few years back I wrote a blog post on the topic of “who would do a ‘good job’ as president.” Criteria included assessments of official constitutional duties as well as informal roles that the U.S. president has taken on over time. Here I’m updating this list for 2020 and taking it a step further and including some criteria that I personally believe to be important but I think that reasonable people can disagree on:

  1. Foreign policy expertise/experience: U.S. presidents face huge constraints in terms of enacting their domestic legislative agenda but have wide latitude to act when it comes to foreign policy. In my view, one of the highest priorities for a president at this moment in history is to prioritize strengthening the liberal international order, repairing our damaged international democratic alliances, defending democracy and human rights both at home and abroad. Or at the very least, actively embracing the radical idea that democratic allies = good, authoritarian dictators = bad.
  2. Cognitive complexity: being president is a really, really, really hard job. I personally think that the person doing this job should be able to skillfully and systematically analyze extremely complex issues while recognizing that the world is a complicated and nuanced place where the “right” thing to do is often subjective and elusive.
  3. Populism: personally speaking, I am extremely wary of populism as a political style, both on the right as well as the left. Populists gain support and popularity by identifying a sub-group of the population as the “enemy” (often an intellectual, political, or economic elite) that threatens the well-being of the “real people” who are noble and virtuous. They tend to sprinkle their rhetoric with words like “corrupt,” “rigged,” “enemy,” etc. It is possible for populists to embrace and respect liberal democratic norms and institutions, but very often they do not. I am wary of populism.
  4. Background/experience: all other things being equal, I think it’s an advantage for the U.S. president to have some previous experience as an elected official, preferably at the federal level, so that they have a realistic appreciation of the constraints that they will be working with. I also see it as an advantage if this person’s background and life experience provided some basis for appreciating the experiences and perspectives of people from disadvantaged or marginalized groups.
  5. Realistic plan of action: presidential candidates promise the moon, knowing full well that they ultimately can’t single-handedly impose their policy agenda like an autocrat. I think it’s important for presidential candidates to give a realistic explanation of how they plan to implement their policy priorities, especially through Congress. When pressed, very few presidential candidates have a feasible plan for passing their agenda if, for example, they face a Congress from the opposing party who doesn’t want them score legislative victories.

Taking that all into account, here is my first round of rankings of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, to be updated periodically throughout the primary election season. Right now I’m limiting my rankings to those who are consistently polling above 1%, other candidates have many admirable points in their favor but are having a hard time breaking out of the 0% zone.

 

TIER 1: HARRIS, BOOKER, BUTTIGIEG

KAMALA HARRIS:

  • PRO: Of the various criteria I outlined above, she is strong on all of them except foreign policy expertise. I’m a fan of her LIFT Act proposal to tackle poverty head-on. I appreciate that she is methodical and deliberate in her decision-making style. She could be a formidable “consensus” candidate between various factions of the Democratic Party.
  • CON: Little foriegn policy experience/expertise, but her time on the Senate Homeland Security and Intelligence Committees could compensate somewhat for that.

CORY BOOKER:

  • PRO: The thing that stands out for me is Booker’s rhetorical style that emphasizes unity, inclusivity, and a politics of “radical love,” which could be a good change coming from a president (the chief political representative of our culture and values). His Baby Bonds anti-poverty proposal is a great idea. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a huge Star Trek geek.
  • CON: He has little foreign policy experience/expertise, although his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might give him a leg up.

PETE BUTTIGIEG:

  • PRO: Impressive resume for someone who is only one year older than me. I’m particularly impressed by his academic training in foreign affairs, his military service, and his previous work experience with “big data” science and the ways of thinking about the social world that comes with it. He is one of the few candidates who is actively proposing creative ideas to reform our electoral institutions in a way that will help reduce polarization and paralysis.  
  • CON: Zero electoral experience at the national level and South Bend local politics are very, very different from those of the U.S. federal government.

 

TIER 2: KLOBUCHAR, BIDEN

AMY KLOBUCHAR:

  • PRO: For me, the key selling point for her is that she is, above all, a pragmatist. She doesn’t make pie-in-the-sky promises about what she’ll do if elected. Instead, she focuses on incremental, but arguably more achievable, objectives that might stand a chance of passing through Congress.
  • CON: Very, very little foreign policy experience.

JOE BIDEN:

  • PRO: He has, by far, the most foreign policy expertise and experience of all the candidates running (including the current incumbent president). If elected, I hope he would prioritize repairing our relationships with democratic allies abroad and promoting human rights in authoritarian regimes, as that is where he would likely accomplish the most long-term and effective change. While Senate Republicans would still fight him tooth and nail on every policy proposal, his extensive background and personal relationships with them might result in an occasional compromise.
  • CON: I am not impressed with how he is dodging interview requests, town hall events, and generally not making himself as available to the media as the other candidates. Also, he is the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era.

 

TIER 3: ELIZABETH WARREN

  • PRO: She has the most extensive and well thought-out policy proposals of any of the current candidates. By far. Her academic background is a big plus.  
  • CON: Her rhetoric and stump speeches frequently invoke populist notes (as noted by no less than Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson), although not to the same degree as Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. She has also intimated that she will “fight dirty” against a Mitch McConnell Senate, returning in kind the not-technically-illegal-or-unconstitutional-but-norm-defying-and-democracy-damaging strategies that McConnell has employed the last several years.

 

TIER 4: BETO O’ROURKE

  • PRO: He is making electoral reform a high priority in his stump speeches.
  • CON: His personal interviews often give the impression that he can be an impulsive decision-maker and perhaps a bit of a lightweight when it comes to substance and style.

 

TIER 5: BERNIE SANDERS

  • PRO: He has improved his foreign policy chops (a little) since the 2016 primary.
  • CON: He is a populist through-and-through with little foreign policy experience and does a poor job of explaining the nuances between “socialism,” “democratic socialism,” “social democracy,” and “authoritarian socialism” to a public that is skeptical of the word “socialism.” When pressed, his plan for passing his agenda is “The Revolution” which I think means persuading the public to sweep like-minded democratic socialists into filibuster-proof majorities in Congress. Color me skeptical.

 

 

My reactions to President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address

Here are a smattering of my reactions to the president’s 2019 State of the Union address, in no particular order:

I will admit being pleasantly surprised by the first half hour or so of the president’s address. He used traditional civic rhetoric that hearkened to lofty ideals about American values and identity. I appreciated his shout-outs to the D-Day veterans and Buzz Aldrin. His positive words toward criminal justice reform, slow-but-steady economic growth, and (later in the speech) childhood cancer, HIV, children, paid family leave, etc. all conform to what is traditionally expected from a U.S. head of state in a situation like this. This was the type of rhetoric that we’d expect from an otherwise “normal” president. Perhaps this is a preview of a new “softer, gentler Trump” approach that he’ll be trying out for the 2020 campaign? (My strong hunch, based on previous experience, is that he lacks the self-control to keep it up longer than a day or two, but I could be wrong!)

The president made good points about economic figures during his administration. He should be grateful for them. The current state of the economy is what’s keeping his approval rating in the low-40s. If an economic recession hits he’ll likely sink into the 30s or 20s.

At the half hour mark, the president took a strong turn in a nativist direction talking about immigration and border security, etc. I’ve talked about this issue at length previously so I won’t rehash it all here, but in a nutshell: I think reasonable people can disagree about the merits of border security and the most efficient and responsible way to handle immigration… but the rhetoric that the president to describe the immigration “onslaught” simply does not match even a generous interpretation of the facts on the ground about recent immigration rates and the link between immigration and crime rates. This does not surprise me, though, as this has been a central part of the president’s campaign and platform for the past three years. This is the issue that motivates the president’s core base and it makes sense that he would continue to beat the drum on this, despite its highly dubious foundations in objective reality. (Just a few examples of the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and reality on immigration: here and here.)

“If I had not been elected president, we would right now be in a major war with North Korea.” I look forward to seeing how the historians discuss that line in their future biographies of the president.

The president’s rhetoric about denouncing anti-Semitism might carry more moral force if he hadn’t declined to reject endorsements from David Duke and the KKK, not to mention praising “some” members of the Charlottesville 2017 white supremacy gathering as “very fine people.”

“Democratic socialism” is NOT the same thing as “Soviet/authoritarian socialism.” To conflate the two is understandable for those who don’t study the nuances of political ideologies, but is (in my view) a strawman argument and lazy thinking. The “socialism” that the president is referring to is “democratic socialism” which is basically just “hyper-liberalism” and is not the same thing as authoritarianism. (See more here.) Democratic socialism is certainly an ideology worth debating, of course, but everyone would do better to know what they’re talking about before denouncing it. That all said, I think there’s an obligation for self-described Democratic Socialists to do more to explain to the public how they are different than other types of socialists, because it’s not obvious or intuitive.

Good for the president for praising women in the workforce and in Congress. I hope that his rhetoric will begin to reflect more respect for women, both in wider society and personally. His rhetoric throughout his life, during the campaign, and early in his presidency has not conveyed the same respect for women that was communicated in his address.

In sum: this speech suggests to me that Donald Trump is certainly capable of bipartisanship and keeping his rhetoric within the boundaries of normal political traditions and expectations. Given his past behavior, however, I will be surprised to see this style of rhetoric survive past the end of the speech. That said, I could be wrong.

Finally, here’s a good summary of the political science research on the effect of State of the Union addresses: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/3-reasons-that-state-of-the-union-speeches-dont-matter/