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The real state of the union in 2018, explained

What Donald Trump won’t tell you.

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Article II, Section 3 of the US Constitution commands that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.” That’s it.

Different presidents have interpreted this mandate in different ways. Until President Woodrow Wilson, for instance, the State of the Union was delivered in writing — it was thought to be unseemly, even demagogic, to deliver the speech in person.

Today, the State of the Union is a strange amalgam of campaign rally, bragging opportunity, and product unveiling. Presidents use it to promote their records, sell their new proposals, and make their case to the American people. What they rarely do is deliver a serious, substantive overview of, well, the state of the union. So we thought we’d give it a try.

—Ezra Klein

The state of immigration

Dara Lind

The state of our union is defensive.

A Homeland Security border patrol officer rides past prototypes of President Trump's proposed border wall in San Diego on November 1, 2017.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Fewer people are crossing the US-Mexico border without papers than at any time in decades. Unauthorized immigrants within the US, most of whom have lived here for a decade or more, are at elevated risk of arrest. And millions of immigrants will be made vulnerable to deportation in the coming months and years with the winding down of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Sudan.

None of these changes seem big enough to shake up core demographic realities: 13.5 percent of the US population is made up of immigrants; their US-born children make up an additional 14 percent. But the Americans who fear demographic change tend to overestimate how rapidly it’s coming, anyway. With the most common form of immigration to the US — family-based immigration — and immigration itself a matter of public debate, one key question is whether America will overhaul legal immigration so thoroughly that it would bend the demographic curve, and whether, in the meantime, would-be immigrants receive a message of welcoming or a hostility that makes them stay away.

The state of the economy

Matthew Yglesias

The American labor market is in healthy shape, with the unemployment rate low and employment levels expanding — albeit at an unspectacular rate. The notion that this represents a dramatic transformation from the late-Obama economic situation is false and the evidence for continuity is overwhelming, but the economy really is in pretty good shape — just as it was when Trump was inaugurated nearly a year ago.

A delivery team unloads packages in New York City on June 2, 2017. US unemployment hit the lowest level since 2001, at 4.3 percent.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A big question moving forward is how the economy responds to low unemployment. Wage growth has, thus far, remained muted, but that could change soon. And the threat of higher pay could tempt businesses to finally start investing in training and equipment to boost productivity. If those things happen, that will be a big deal, but so far they remain largely hypothetical, and 2017 economic performance was very much in line with the previous six years.

The stock market is another matter — it rose sharply under Obama but has soared to new heights under Trump, growing much faster than corporate profits or overall national income. And America isn’t alone here; markets in Korea, India, Germany, and Hong Kong are also at all-time highs.

The state of the stock market

Emily Stewart

The Dow Jones Industrial Average hit 20,000 for the first time five days after President Trump’s inauguration and has largely continued an upward trajectory since then, surpassing 26,000 earlier this month. The S&P 500 on Friday saw its 14th record close in January, the most in a single month in more than 50 years.

And President Trump knows it.

Traders work on the floor of the Dow Industrial Average at the New York Stock Exchange on January 17, 2018.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

The stock market has become one of Trump’s favorite talking points, a measure of his success. While some of the market run can be attributed to politics — namely, investor optimism about deregulation and corporate tax cuts — a lot can’t: Global markets essentially everywhere are doing well, and corporate earnings are quite strong.

We’re entering the ninth year of an economic and stock market recovery following the financial crisis, and there’s an almost alarming level of exuberance on Wall Street as investors continue to pile in.

It’s not clear what, if anything, will shake Wall Street right now. And if and when something does, Trump, who has been so eager to take credit for the upswing, might reconsider his positioning once stocks start to go down.

The state of public health

Julia Belluz

The Trump administration’s repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate was the most obvious assault on health care in the past year. But the administration has also either failed to act or actively restricted progress on several major public health issues.

A memorial in Huntington, West Virginia, on April 20, 2017. Huntington, bordering Kentucky, has been called the epicenter of the opioid crisis.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Despite paying lip service to fighting the opioid epidemic, Trump has made no move to allocate extra funding to it, and has left key positions in the White House’s drug czar office and the Drug Enforcement Administration unfilled.

Childhood obesity, already a bigger killer than opioids, is also not a priority, and Trump’s agriculture secretary has moved to loosen nutrition standards for the school lunch program.

The administration’s focus on undoing as many Obama-era regulations as possible has involved rolling back the ACA’s birth control mandate (which has been temporarily blocked by two federal courts) and taking steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan, which was expected to make the air cleaner and therefore cut asthma and heart disease rates.

The administration has proposed $1.2 billion in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s budget for fiscal year 2018 and through the tax bill has already excised $100 million from the CDC’s Public Health and Prevention Fund, starting in 2019. That means states will have fewer dollars to pay for vaccinations and preventive health services focused on issues like lead poisoning and diabetes.

Taken together, these actions don’t bode well at a time when America’s mortality rate is rising.

The state of Obamacare

Dylan Scott

President Trump has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to get another shot.

At back-to-back rallies in midtown Manhattan, liberal activists rallied against President Trumps intentions to disallow transsexual officers to serve in the U.S. armed forces and then rallied to denounce efforts by the President and Republican politicians
Demonstrators protesting the repeal of the ACA in New York City on July 29, 2017.
Albin Lohr-Jones/LightRocket via Getty Images

Big chunks of the law — its Medicaid expansion, its federal subsidies for private health coverage, its protections for preexisting conditions — are untouched under Trump. Republicans did manage to repeal the ACA’s individual mandate in their tax bill, but at this point, most experts think the law can survive, if imperfectly, without it.

Yet Trump will still leave his mark on it, even if its infrastructure remains in place. His administration is recreating a non-Obamacare market, giving people more options to buy health insurance that doesn’t comply with the law’s rules. He slashed funding for ACA advertising, and enrollment dropped slightly for the first time in the law’s history. His administration is trying, though it’s currently blocked by a federal court, to significantly loosen Obamacare’s birth control mandate.

And the Trump administration has opened up a new front in the battle over Medicaid, allowing work requirements in the program for the first time. Though Congress failed to repeal the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid, Trump officials are preparing to take the program in a dramatically more conservative direction.

Major health care legislation seems off the table for now, after the Senate Republican majority shrank from 52 to 51. Trump won’t get his biggest scalp if repeal is really dead. But the law will always be in a precarious position as long as a hostile White House can attack it with nicks and cuts.

The state of the US-North Korea standoff

Alex Ward

The US-North Korea showdown doesn’t look like it’s headed to a resolution anytime soon.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley walks past a replica of Guernica by Pablo Picasso as she arrives to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat on January 2, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un tested three missiles last year that could theoretically hit the mainland United States, including one that could conceivably strike major US cities. His military tested its largest nuclear weapon to date, seven times stronger than the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Kim’s hackers also launched a cyberattack that disabled hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries around the world. From Kim’s vantage point, he’s got the US in his crosshairs, keeping a potential invasion at bay.

Meanwhile, President Trump led a global campaign to impose harsh new sanctions on Pyongyang because of its nuclear and missile programs, including a measure on August 5 that prohibited some of North Korea’s key exports. More than 20 countries restricted North Korea’s diplomatic activities, including expelling its diplomats. That’s contributed to the suffering of North Korea’s population; it’s already one of the world’s poorest countries.

The US wants North Korea to end its weapons programs — but there’s no evidence that that’s going to happen. That’s in part because of the Trump administration’s confused messaging on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made statements indicating that the US would be willing to sit down with North Korea for talks without preconditions, only to be undercut almost immediately afterward by the president himself. Which means the standoff will likely persist through 2018.

The state of gun laws

German Lopez

In the first year of the Trump presidency, America saw the deadliest mass shooting in its history. A gunman, Stephen Paddock, indiscriminately opened fire from a hotel room overlooking a country music concert in Las Vegas — killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more.

Mourners attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 2, 2017.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

About a month later, America saw another high-profile mass shooting. This time, the shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, walked into a church in rural Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed 26 people.

The shootings offered another reminder of America’s unique gun problem. The US has more civilian-owned guns than any other country in the world. It also has the highest gun death rate of any wealthy nation: The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times the rate of Sweden, and nearly 16 times the rate of Germany, according to United Nations data. These two problems are linked; the research has consistently shown that where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths — and that gun control measures reduce the number of gun deaths.

Yet over the past several years, as America has seen multiple record-breaking mass shootings, the federal government has failed to take any action to curtail access to guns. Trump in particular didn’t call for any such legislation in the aftermath of the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings. Little surprise, then, that America continues to sustain a level of gun violence unparalleled in any other developed nation.

The state of criminal justice

German Lopez

America is the world’s leader in incarceration — and Trump has long been vocal about wanting to keep it that way. On the campaign trail, he called himself “tough on crime” — a moniker for someone who supports harsher criminal justice policies. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he talked up harsher prison sentences and greater use of the death penalty.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks to local, state, and federal law enforcement about a recent spate of violence in Central Islip, New York, on April 28, 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another “tough on crime” politician, Trump was seemingly ready to implement his agenda. They sure tried: As head of the US Justice Department, Sessions enacted policy after policy that attempted to reinstate harsh tactics scaled back by President Barack Obama and his attorneys general — asking federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest prison sentences possible even for low-level drug offenders, pulling back federal investigations into potentially abusive police departments, rescinding a memo shielding marijuana legalization states from federal intervention, and more.

It remains to be seen how these policies will impact the federal prison system. Official statistics show the federal prison population still fell from more than 192,000 in 2016 to less than 184,000 this month.

The good news for reformers is the bulk of the criminal justice system lies at the state and local level. Roughly 87 percent of US prisoners are in state facilities (and most of those state inmates are in for violent, not drug, offenses). Many states, motivated by the high financial cost of mass incarceration, seem intent on reforming and shrinking their prison systems. So as much as Trump and Sessions may try, ultimately it will come down to the states — and they’re going in the opposite direction as the president and his attorney general.

The state of the military

Alex Ward

The US military had a tumultuous year under President Trump.

Demonstrators against President Trump’s comments on banning transgender people from serving in the military march in front of the US Army career center in Times Square on July 26, 2017.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

In July, Trump tweeted that he would reinstate the ban on transgender people serving in the military, and then released the actual policy behind the ban in August. But the guidance also allowed the secretary of defense, after consulting with the secretary of homeland security, some wiggle room to decide what to do with already serving trans service members.

And after months of legal battles, US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled against the ban and in November told the military that it must allow trans people to enlist starting in January.

Beyond that, troops continue to face tough challenges in the myriad conflict zones where they fight — Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Western Africa — and at home. At least 56 troops were killed or injured in non-combat scenarios since June 2017. That’s just over 20 more US troops than died in war zones last year.

The administration attributes the spike in non-combat deaths to a lack of funding that helps troops prepare for all scenarios. Trump plans to fix that, in part, with a $716 billion defense budget for 2019, a 7 percent increase over the 2018 defense budget.

The state of education

Libby Nelson

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, faced a wave of fierce opposition at her confirmation a year ago from K-12 students and teachers worried that her advocacy for vouchers and charter schools would weaken American public education.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces changes to federal policy regarding rules for investigating sexual assault reports on college campuses, at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia, on September 7, 2017.
J. Lawler Duggan/Washington Post via Getty Images

But K-12 education in America is decentralized enough that DeVos has been largely hamstrung on the administration’s agenda of promoting vouchers, charter schools, and other school choice programs. (One exception came in the tax reform bill, which allowed parents to use tax-advantaged college savings accounts to pay for private school.)

It’s higher education where DeVos’s impact has truly been felt. Colleges can now require a tougher standard of evidence to find students responsible for sexual assault, a move decried by victim advocates. DeVos appointed figures from the for-profit college industry to key posts within the Education Department. The administration is rewriting regulations intended to hold for-profit colleges and vocational programs accountable for whether their students can pay back their loans later on — and the Education Department’s new version would be essentially toothless. Some students who claimed their colleges defrauded them will no longer get their loans forgiven entirely.

Enrollment at for-profit colleges surged during the Great Recession. As unemployment has fallen over the past few years, and in the wake of Obama’s push to regulate the colleges, enrollments dropped. But in the next economic downturn, for-profit colleges will have fewer federal restraints in their pursuit of students — and profit.

The state of inequality

Dylan Matthews

Donald Trump entered office in the aftermath of four decades of increasing income inequality in America. Between 1979 and 2014, the top 1 percent’s share of the national economy grew from 9.1 percent to 15.7 percent. The share going to the top 0.001 percent (a group consisting of fewer than 2,400 adults in 2014) more than tripled, from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent.

President Trump speaks during an event to celebrate Congress passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act with Republican members of the House and Senate on the South Lawn of the White House on December 20, 2017.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

But he also succeeded the president who did more than any other in that period to counter the trend. President Obama signed into law a variety of tax increases targeting rich Americans. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the average tax rate on the top 1 percent rose from 28.7 percent in 2012 to 34 percent in 2013, returning the rate to almost its 1979, pre-Ronald Reagan level.

Trump has already taken significant steps to reverse that progress. His tax law will increase inequality; this year, the top 1 percent will see their incomes rise by 3.4 percent under the bill, compared to a mere 0.4 percent boost for the poorest Americans. He has reversed an Obama initiative to expand overtime pay. And he declined to reappoint Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who did a tremendous job of reducing unemployment and raising wages, and appointed a Fed governor critical of her focus on creating jobs.

The result will undoubtedly be a return to the trend of ever-increasing inequality present before Obama’s reforms.

The state of terrorism

Zack Beauchamp

During the campaign, Donald Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” He’s done that, escalating the pace of US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq substantially and giving battlefield commanders more authority to risk civilian casualties while hitting the group.

Students on the University of Mosul campus in Mosul, Iraq, on January 21, 2018.
Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Whether this helped win the war on ISIS is a matter of debate. ISIS did lose territory at a rapid clip in 2017, including its two major strongholds of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, but experts say these defeats were inevitable and largely a result of the strategy put in place under President Obama. Trump’s airstrikes may have accelerated ISIS’s defeat, but it’s quite hard to tell if that’s the case.

What’s certain is that it led to a higher rate of civilian casualties: According to a count by the watchdog group Airwars, US airstrikes on ISIS killed as many civilians in Trump’s first six months as they did during the entirety of Obama’s presidency. So President Trump mostly continued the Obama administration’s strategy of aiding local forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria with weapons, special forces, and airstrikes, but continued it in a way that led to more innocent deaths in exchange for questionable military gains.

More broadly, his approach to fighting terrorism has been one of escalation, ramping up US airstrikes and/or troop levels in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Make no mistake: Trump’s is a war presidency.

The state of the Russian election interference investigation

Andrew Prokop

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign has already borne fruit. Trump’s first national security adviser and another campaign foreign policy adviser have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russians — and begun cooperating with Mueller’s probe. Trump’s campaign manager and another campaign staffer have also been indicted for crimes unrelated to the campaign.

Former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse on November 2, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Yet when it comes to the central question of the probe — whether Trump’s team colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign — we’re still lacking a clear answer.

Yes, we’ve learned that there was more than one instance in which Trump advisers had discussions with people connected to the Russian government about the Russians having “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. But we still don’t yet know whether these actually led to anything — say, substantive coordination or a secret deal of some kind between Trump’s team and the Russians.

Meanwhile, Trump has been under increasing scrutiny about whether his attempts to interfere with the Russia investigation amount to obstruction of justice. But he and Republicans have been fighting back, attempting to discredit the Mueller probe, the DOJ, and the FBI with their own arguments of misconduct. Overall, then, the future of the investigation looks anything but clear.

The state of climate change

Umair Irfan

Despite the slowdown in coal consumption in the United States and China over the past year, global greenhouse gas emissions overall continue to rise.

Chinese street vendors sell vegetables at a local market outside a state-owned coal-fired power plant near the site of a large floating solar farm project in Huainan, Anhui province, China, on June 13, 2017.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Keeping global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius this century — the goal of the Paris climate accord — would require the world reaching peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Countries will need to close the gap between their stated ambitions and the actions they are currently taking by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change.

But the prospect of hitting this target grew dimmer when President Trump announced in June that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris agreement.

Domestically, the administration has launched an effort to roll back, undermine, or delay environmental regulations on everything from toxic chemicals to greenhouse gases. It has staffed federal agencies with people financially or ideologically committed to fossil fuel industries. And the government is now talking about its climate work differently — several agencies have gone so far as to remove language about climate change from websites and policy documents.

The state of energy

Umair Irfan

“Energy dominance” is the main idea driving Trump energy policy, with the aim of ramping up coal, oil, and natural gas exports as a diplomatic lever. To this end, the administration has authorized new natural gas export terminals and is working to open almost all US territories to drilling, including coastal waters and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Environmental groups assemble for a news conference with Democratic senators on the east lawn of the Capitol to oppose oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on October 17, 2017.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

However, these policies have failed to resuscitate the ailing US coal industry, which is hemorrhaging jobs due to automation and competition from other energy sources. With domestic coal consumption still declining and export markets volatile, employment is barely holding steady.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s plan to bail out coal and nuclear power plants — presented as protecting the reliability of the power grid — was rejected in January by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Meanwhile, renewable power is still growing, with key tax credits for wind and solar power narrowly escaping the chopping block in the tax overhaul package. But solar’s rate of growth is likely to slow as new tariffs on imported solar panels go into effect.

The state of Puerto Rico

Alexia Fernández

The state of Puerto Rico is the worst in the union.

Isamar holds her baby Saniel, 9 months, near their home, which was mostly destroyed by Hurricane Maria, in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, on December 23, 2017. Their neighborhood remains without electricity.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Four months after Hurricane Maria destroyed the Caribbean island, which has been a territory of the United States for more than 100 years, Puerto Ricans are struggling to regain a semblance of normal life. About 30 percent of the island's electricity users still don't have power, and the government doesn't expect it to be fully restored until May. The lack of basic services has fueled a mass exodus from the island, which demographers expect will only worsen. So far, more than 250,000 people have left Puerto Rico for the US mainland — possibly for good. To top it all off, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to stop distributing food and water supplies by the end of January.

Puerto Rico was already in horrible shape before the storm hit. The Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria has put an already struggling island in extreme distress.

The state of gender equality

Anna North

A little more than a year ago, Americans heard the man who is now our president brag on tape that “when you’re a star,” women let you “grab ’em by the pussy.”

The Women's March on Washington on January 20, 2018.
Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The election of this man has had wide-ranging effects on the lives of American women and others marginalized because of their gender. In many cases, their rights have been curtailed. But in some, they have been galvanized to act.

Since President Trump took office, we’ve seen the reinstatement of the Mexico City policy, which bars aid organizations abroad from receiving US funds if they even discuss abortion as a method of family planning. We’ve seen a weakening of the Obama-era rule that employers must offer health insurance that covers contraception — any employer can now request an exemption for moral or religious reasons. We’ve seen the federal government step in to try to stop undocumented, unaccompanied minors from receiving abortions.

We’ve also seen a groundswell of activism by women and others demanding gender, racial, and economic equality at Women’s Marches and other demonstrations around the country — more than 120,000 people, by one estimate, took to the streets in New York City for the Women’s March earlier this month.

We’ve seen record numbers of women expressing interest in running for office and women winning elections in a series of historic firsts.

And we’ve seen women and people of all genders come forward to report sexual misconduct by people in power, and to talk about the effects of harassment and assault on their lives and careers.

A man accused of sexual misconduct by at least 17 women will deliver the State of the Union address tonight, and his administration’s policies on reproductive health and other issues have already harmed countless people around the country and the world. But those people are fighting back.

The state of anxiety

Brian Resnick

Americans are stressed the hell out. The American Psychological Association has been conducting its Stress in America poll every year since 2007, and the latest one finds that 63 percent of Americans say the future of the country is a very significant source of stress in their lives.

Penny Brott, 53, stands outside at home on in Ordway, Colorado, on November 15, 2017.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Even more tellingly, 59 percent said this is the “lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember.” And this sentiment transcended generations: A majority of baby boomers, Gen X-ers, millennials, and adults over the age of 72 felt it. (Caveat: The APA has not asked this question in its survey before. So it’s possible people were misremembering their previous misery.)

Young people are the most stressed out of all. A separate study — a poll of America’s teachers — found that nearly half of America’s teachers say their students experienced more “high levels of stress and anxiety” than in previous years. Some 58 percent of teachers reported that some of their students were concerned about proposals to deport undocumented immigrants.

Americans are also notably stressed about the future of health care. When the APA asked poll respondents which issue caused the most stress, health care came out on top.

Vox will continue to monitor the state of the union throughout the year with reporting, analysis, and explainers. You can watch President Trump’s State of the Union speech live, and read the rest of Vox’s coverage here.

A view of the US Capitol a day before the State of the Union address by President Trump.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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