03/01/17 the hill
President Trump addressed a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening. It was his biggest set-piece moment since his inaugural address. What were the main takeaways?
Trump’s speech was conventional — to the GOP’s relief
The president won election while flouting every established rule of politics — a pattern that has persisted in the White House, giving heartburn even to Republican allies.
By contrast, Trump on Tuesday was at his most restrained. There were no attacks on the media; no especially flamboyant claims or personal jabs; and few significant digressions from the prepared text of his speech.
Trump is an unconventional president, but his speech felt remarkable at times for being so normal.
All of that will be just fine with GOP lawmakers. They have been desperately wanting Trump to curb what they see as self-defeating impulses which distract from an effective underlying message.
They are looking for leadership from Trump, and while the president provided few policy details on Tuesday night, he set out clear objectives in a way that could boost his party’s rank-and-file.
The night recalled the announcement of Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — another occasion when he stayed within the orthodox parameters.
Trump’s tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of a Navy SEAL killed last month in a raid in Yemen, was handled expertly by Trump. It provided the kind of emotional highpoint presidents often aim for in speeches like this.
It also drew tributes from across the aisle, with CNN commentator Van Jones warning liberals that Trump will be in the White House for eight years if he can create other, similar moments.
Out with the grim ‘carnage,’ in with the sunny ‘new chapter’
In his Jan. 20 inaugural address, Trump talked about “American carnage” and saw a land where “rusted out factories [are] scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”
Tuesday’s address was sunny by comparison. In its early stages, the president insisted that “a new chapter of American greatness is now beginning.” As it neared its conclusion, he encouraged his audience to “think of the marvels we can achieve if we simply set free the dreams of our people.”
Trump doesn’t trade in unalloyed optimism. There were other less cheery passages, as he spoke about crime rates and what he sees as the dangers of lax enforcement of immigration laws.
But the broader message — “everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing, and hope” — was more harmonious than we are used to hearing from Trump.
An uplifting tone on one night won’t suddenly change the minds of the millions of Americans who are vehemently opposed to the president and his agenda. But it could at least make him a more palatable figure to centrists and independent-minded voters.
Trump is an American nationalist — love it or hate it
Most recent presidents, Republican or Democrat, have depicted themselves as inherently global figures — the leaders of the free world. Trump might claim that title too, but he speaks a different lexicon.
“My job is not to represent the world,” he said at one point. “My job is to represent the United States of America.”
The influence of Trump’s controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon can be heard most clearly at such moments. Bannon is a fierce believer in the importance of the nation-state, in part as a bulwark against dark forces of corporatism and globalism. Trump, in an apparent reference to institutions such as NATO and the UN, said on Tuesday, “We will respect historic institutions but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations.”
When it came to the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Trump conspicuously promised to work with “our friends and allies in the Muslim world.”
But he did not back away from the basic idea behind his deeply contentious executive order on immigration and refugees. “My administration has been working on improved vetting procedures, and we will shortly take new steps to keep our nation safe — and to keep out those who would do us harm,” he said.
Trump’s critics contend that he has inflamed racial and religious divisions, and Hillary Clinton criticized him on Twitter on Monday for failing to speak out forcefully enough against bigotry.
But he made a clear attempt to rebut those criticisms in his opening remarks, condemning anti-Semitic threats as well as a suspected hate crime in Kansas City in which one Indian man was killed and another wounded.
He wants healthcare utopia
Trump reiterated his desire to see the Affordable Care Act repealed and replaced — in the process earnings some thumbs-down gestures from Democratic lawmakers.
But Republicans will be wondering how they craft legislation that comes close to realizing what Trump promised.
He insisted it ought to be possible to get new laws that “expand choice, increase access, lower costs and, at the same time, provide better health care.”
He added that ObamaCare’s famous “mandate” was “never the right solution for America” but that people with pre-existing conditions should still have access to coverage and that no-one should be “left out” of Medicaid — the program for lower-income Americans that Obama’s legislation greatly expanded.
Most experts simply don’t believe such a “best of all worlds” solution is possible — and it seems especially unlikely in a deeply divided Congress.
He got a better fact-checker
One of the Trumpian traits that most frustrates his critics is a tendency to play fast and loose with the facts.
At times, that has created public embarrassment. Less than two weeks ago, at a White House press conference, the president was challenged by Peter Alexander of NBC News on his untrue assertion that he had won the biggest electoral victory since President Reagan. “I was given that information,” Trump said with a shrug. “Actually, I’ve seen that information around.”
There was little sign of such a cavalier approach on Tuesday. Comments Trump made on the 2015 murder rate and on violent crime in Chicago were accurate, in contrast to previous remarks on those same subjects.
In his litany of complaints about the Affordable Care Act, he noted that premiums in Arizona have increased 116 percent, a finding backed up by a Department of Health and Human Services report.
Critics will argue with his broader interpretations of other topics, such as the economic impact of immigration or his implied assertion that he deserved credit for various job announcements.
But, at first look, Trump appeared to have avoided the kind of misstep that would give his detractors a cudgel to beat him with.
The difference did not go unnoticed.
“This speech appears to have been nominally fact-checked,” Glenn Thrush of the New York Times tweeted.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.