For agriculture, it doesn’t always get a big shout out directly during the President’s annual State of the Union address. However, over the years some prominent messages and themes continue to play out in the presidential address.
I’ve been covering the world of agricultural politics for over a decade. When it comes to the State of the Unions, the most monumental one its impact for rural America likely came from the 2006 speech by then President George W. Bush when he promoted renewable energy and again in 2007 (he also made a strong plea in his 2005 speech).
It was 2006 when President George W. Bush spoke of the nation's addiction to oil and it significantly spurred ethanol demand. The presidential focus finally offered the boost to get the expanded RFS in place which was passed in 2007.
For President Donald Trump often being seen as a polar opposite of his predecessors, he had very similar themes among his speech Tuesday night.
His message focused mainly on his overarching policy goals moving forward including immigration reform and infrastructure.
Infrastructure is no stranger to State of the Union addresses, often seen as an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation (yet not always realized.)
In 2011, Obama called for redoubling efforts in rebuilding infrastructure, putting Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. Sound familiar?
Trump called for the rebuilding of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and called America a “nation of builders.” He called on Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment needed. Trump offered few details on funding or priorities for the infrastructure package, although said it would be a partnership with state and local governments as well as private partnerships.
Obama focused heavily on trade in his State of the Union addresses in the later years of office as he was seeking Trade Promotion Authority and looked to close the deal on the Trans Pacific Partnership. In addition, in 2011 Obama encouraged job creation by doubling exports, passing the pending free trade agreements which were South Korea, Panama and Colombia.
Trade has had quite possibly the greatest impact on those in agriculture since President Trump took office with his threats of withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership.
In his speech, Trump said “America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, or jobs and our Nation’s wealth. The era of economic surrender is over. From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair and to be reciprocal. We will work to fix bad trade deals and negotiate new ones.”
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said following the speech that “the president’s emphasis on fair trade gives me confidence that he will strike deals that benefit all parts of the American economy.”
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson said the president rightly spoke about how past trade agreements disadvantage the working class, family famers 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,” Johnson said in a statement.
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers and ranchers must have new market opportunities and as a businessman, President Trump understands that. (Or so we hope!)
We haven’t seen a withdrawal from NAFTA thank goodness, but as for those other bilateral deals Trump promised when he came into office, he also didn’t seem to mention those in his address. Maybe he’s figured out trade deals are harder in a government world than in the business world.
Trump also called on this Congress to be the one that finally makes comprehensive immigration reform happen. He said his Administration has met extensively with both Democrats and Republicans to craft a bipartisan approach to immigration reform. The four pillars of the plan include a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age; fully securing the border; ending the visa lottery; and ends chain migration.
The American Farm Bureau Federation continues to call for legislative action to address the lack of an adequate agricultural workforce. Duvall has said immigration is the No. 1 issue facing farmers today.
“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,” Duvall said. “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.”
Obama too tried to urge Congress to act on immigration. In 2014 Obama's address noted that a review by independent economists shows that immigration reform will grow the economy and shrink deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades.
Over the years of Obama, he often stood before a split Congress which required even more bipartisan support. He called for Congress to work together. Surprisingly, this Congress and White House are all controlled by the Republicans and still can't figure out how to work together.
Maybe our cry after another repetitious State of the Union is maybe it’s time to finally get some of these ongoing issues accomplished. President George W. Bush preached loudly for renewable energy and corn prices saw a huge demand boost as well as new rural vitality was pumped back into the countryside.
What would happen if we fixed the immigration system, opened up markets through better trade deals and improved infrastructure to keep U.S. agriculture competitive? I think we all could agree it would be quite the feat, but oh so beneficial for those in rural America.