Published 6:24 PM EDT Oct 24, 2018
WASHINGTON – Subdued and on-script, President Donald Trump struck a bipartisan tone as he signed sweeping legislation Wednesday to combat the opioid epidemic, an issue that has animated his effort to support Republican midterm candidates.
Discussing a crisis affecting urban centers as well as rural communities that supported his election, Trump touted the measure as a bipartisan response to a problem rarely cited as a top issue for voters that nevertheless touches millions of them personally.
"We are going to end it or we are going to at least make an extremely big dent in this terrible, terrible problem." Trump said during an East Room event that drew members of both parties. "We have mobilized the entire federal government to address this crisis."
With less than two weeks to go before the midterm election decides control of Congress, the legislation gave the president an opportunity to promote a deliverable to voters in the face of criticism from Democrats and some policy experts that his administration has been slow to respond to a crisis that claimed 72,000 lives last year.
Trump often discusses opioids as he campaigns for Republican candidates at rallies across the country, framing the addiction problem as a major – if sometimes overlooked – issue that has affected millions of Americans personally.
“It’s still a very prominent issue here,” said Jim Merrill, a veteran political consultant in New Hampshire who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in 2016.
“Actually showing action and showing some positive steps forward certainly has the possibility of benefiting President Trump politically,” he added.
Trump declared a public health emergency on the issue a year ago this week, but it's not clear whether that action translated into tangible change for health care or addiction treatment providers dealing with the problem in hard hit communities.
Speaking at a rally in Nevada this past weekend, Trump touted the “bold action” and “historic effort” he said his administration embarked on to address the problem. His administration's response has fallen into two categories, he has said: Stepped up enforcement and more funding for states to expand treatment.
"We obtained $6 billion to fight the opioid epidemic," Trump said during his most recent stop in Houston this week, referencing a funding bill approved by Congress in March.
The new legislation that Congress approved Oct. 3, makes it easier to intercept drugs being shipped into the country, authorizes new funding for more comprehensive treatment, speeds up research on non-addictive painkillers and clears Medicare and Medicaid regulations that advocates have said can stand in the way of treatment.
Critics have said Washington continues to under-fund treatment, exacerbating a shortage that state and local governments have scrambled to close.
Trump has repeatedly claimed during campaign events that his administration's efforts are having an impact on the epidemic. “The numbers are way down,” he said during a rally in Tennessee this year, referencing falling opioid prescriptions.
But the number of opioid prescriptions has, in fact, been falling since before Trump took office last year. Opioid prescriptions peaked in 2012 at just over 255 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and fell to 191 million last year.
“It’s something that impacts urban communities, suburban communities small towns and rural areas,” said Dan Judy, a Republican pollster who has surveyed voters about the issue. “It’s actually one of the rare issues that … has not become a strictly partisan issue.”
Though the opioid crisis had been ravaging communities for years, it picked up political salience during the 2016 presidential primary in New Hampshire, which held the first primary of the Republican nomination process. The Granite State was hit hard, and voters pressed candidates for answers as they came through the state to campaign.
After becoming president, Trump credited the issue for his win in New Hampshire, according to the leaked transcript of conversation with then-President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico.
"I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den," he told the Mexican leader.
Opioid addiction has also beset run-down industrial areas in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia, where displaced workers may turn to drugs. Trump tapped into many of those same communities in 2016, pitching himself as a voice for Americans who were left behind by a shifting economy.
"I wish it was getting more attention. I think it’s one of Trump’s best achievements and a feather in the GOP cap," said Scott Jennings, a political adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"You know what they say: Good policy makes good politics."
Contributing: Maureen Groppe.