Stately, scripted and subdued, Trump delivered perhaps the most traditional speech of his political career on Tuesday night. Sounding much like so many of the other presidents who have preceded him, he drew on history and the personal narratives of his hand-selected guests as he recited a prosaic laundry list of policy proposals, interrupted with spurts of soaring rhetoric and paeans to American exceptionalism.
He honored the widow of the late Antonin Scalia. He paid homage to Abraham Lincoln. He spoke about “the hopes that stir our souls.”
In an unusually trim-fitting suit, Trump arrived on Capitol Hill only hours after he had given himself a rare poor review on anything, a grade of “C or a C-plus” for messaging early in his presidency. And from the earliest moments of his speech, when Trump invoked “civil rights” fights that remain unfinished and condemned “hate and evil in all its forms” after recent threats and attacks on Jewish cemeteries and community centers, it was clear that Trump had undergone, at least for one night, a messaging makeover.
Trump traded the language of “American carnage” that defined his darker inaugural address for softer rhetoric, declaring that “a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.”
The words were conciliatory instead of combative. Some had been virtually unheard from him during the 20 months since he launched his political career: “true love,” “common ground,” and “the common good,” “cooperate.” Indeed, as Trump prepared to depart the White House, he could be seen seated in the backseat of his limo amid a drizzling rain, mouthing his lines.