Bypassing rural American comments, Trump mixes optimism, warnings

Addressing a deeply divided nation, President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union message challenged lawmakers to fix immigration, and blended calls for optimism with dark warnings about North Korea.

“The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling and the underprivileged all over the world,” Trump said. “But as president of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers and America’s forgotten communities.”

Trump addressed the nation with tensions running high on Capitol Hill. An impasse over immigration prompted a three-day government shutdown earlier this year, and lawmakers appear no closer to resolving the status of the “Dreamers”—young people living in the U.S. illegally—ahead of a Feb. 8 deadline for funding operations.

Trump also highlighted the decision made early in his first year to withdraw the U.S. from a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade pact, declaring: “The era of economic surrender is totally over.”

He spoke about potential agenda items for 2018 in broad terms, including a call for $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending and partnerships with states and the private sector. He touched only briefly on issues like health care that have been at the center of the Republican Party’s policy agenda for years.

Tackling the sensitive immigration debate that has roiled Washington, Trump redoubled his recent pledge to offer a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants—but only as part of a package that would also require increased funding for border security, including a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, ending the nation’s visa lottery method and revamping the current legal immigration system. Some Republicans are wary of the hardline elements of Trump’s plan, and it’s unclear whether his blueprint could pass Congress.

“Americans are dreamers too,” Trump said, in an apparent effort to reclaim the term.

Trump’s approval ratings have hovered in the 30s for much of his presidency, and just 3 in 10 Americans said the U.S. was heading in the right direction, according to a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In the same survey, 67 percent of Americans said the country was more divided because of Trump.

In a post-speech rebuttal, Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy, was seeking to undercut Trump’s optimistic tone and remind voters of the personal insults and attacks often leveled by the president.

“Bullies may land a punch,” Kennedy said. “They might leave a mark. But they have never, not once, in the history of our United States, managed to match the strength and spirit of a people united in defense of their future.”

While agriculture and rural policy—in particular the upcoming farm bill—were not mentioned specifically, the issues of immigration and trade were much on the minds of farm groups as they reacted to Trump’s speech.

For his part, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue—who was the Cabinet secretary tabbed as the “designated survivor” and not present for the president’s speech, said in a statement, “President Trump’s optimistic vision for the nation includes massive investment in infrastructure, which will be a boon to a rural America that sorely needs such improvements. The president’s emphasis on fair trade gives me confidence that he will strike deals that benefit all parts of the American economy….This is a president who has rural America and agriculture close to his heart, as his words and deeds clearly demonstrate.”

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall said in a statement, “As (Trump) works to reframe our trade agreements as fair and reciprocal, he goes in with the understanding that we need a trade agenda that secures greater access to ag export markets.

“With the more-than-$1 trillion infrastructure development package he announced tonight, it is our expectation that rural communities will be partners in what he described as a New American Moment. Infrastructure upgrades tied to our rural communities will help pave the way for economic renewal that is so badly needed.

“The bold package of immigration reform measures he put on the table tonight should prime the pump for overdue action, and we encourage Congress to take action in a timely manner. While we must do more to secure our borders, the fact remains that our farmers and ranchers need access to agriculture labor they can depend on. Agriculture must be part of President Trump’s proposal for merit-based immigration.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said in a statement, “Family farmers and rural residents are looking to President Trump to deliver on his promises to fix the nation’s failed free trade agreement framework and crumbling rural infrastructure.

“The president, rightly so, spoke to how our past trade agreements disadvantage the working class, family farmers and their communities. These agreements operate under a failed framework that the president can begin to fix by replacing NAFTA with an agreement that addresses our massive trade deficit and lost sovereignty.

“Unfortunately, President Trump has gone about this in a fashion that isn’t conducive to positive relations with our trading partners. The administration must produce a better NAFTA and avoid massive market disruption through a NAFTA withdrawal.

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“We also appreciate the president’s attention to current infrastructure woes. There is clearly a growing need for significant federal investment in our nation s roads, rails, broadband, locks and dams. We urge the administration and Congress to move swiftly in developing the promised comprehensive infrastructure package.”

Julie Pace and Zeke Miller of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].