Or, in the words of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who was excited Trump threw him a bone on some details of health care reform: “That was a home run.”
But for all the ways conventional wisdom was proven wrong last year, most still assume the 2020 race that Trump’s already announced and held his first campaign rally for would have to be different. He'd be without the foil of a Hillary Clinton that so many voters either hated or couldn’t get inspired by, with clear benchmarks Trump declared over the course of his campaign for Democrats to hold him to, running as a person who’d have to answer for his record rather than just attack from the peanut gallery.
And yet as much as Democrats want to believe they can beat Trump, want to be bucked up by a Republican Congress that’s so far been unable to pass a single significant bill and the grassroots energy bursting in their own base, the tentacles of doubt started creeping in as many watched the speech: What if now he’s this guy? What if they’re underestimating him like they did all through the campaign? What if they have to change up the strategy again?
Trump’s solid but substance-light speech came after six weeks of a struggling, sputtering presidency captured in a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out earlier in the day showing Trump doing decently on being decisive and direct, but underwater on changing Washington, getting things done, dealing with the economy, honesty, knowledge, handling international crisis and temperament.
And yet, Tuesday night was for the first time actually different from anything Trump’s done before. It was the kind of upbeat outreach speech that many Republicans had hoped he’d deliver at the convention last summer or at his inauguration in January, and that Republicans in Congress will need more if they’re going to pass his agenda rather than duck and cover every time he opens his mouth or takes out his phone.
“I think he’ll continue to grow at this and do this more often,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “I think people looking at home, some may have a different impression watching him tonight and seeing that he’s a president for all Americans.”
It was enough of a success that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seemed to suggest that he hadn’t before the speech been convinced Trump should have the job, but it had pulled him over the edge.
“Donald Trump did indeed become presidential tonight. And I think we'll see that reflected in a higher approval rating,” McConnell said.
Now the question is whether the speech breaks through. Or whether he’ll able to hold to it before some riled-up tweetstorm in the next few days or hours. Or if the sense of him is so set in most Americans' minds already. Or if any memory of this version of Trump will seem like another one of those mass hallucinations that seem to have overtaken American politics these days when he does finally release the revised travel ban executive order and order the deportation forces he said were already at work as he stood there in the House chamber.
“Even when he has good moments, he gets in his own way,” one-time Obama strategist David Axelrod said on CNN.
The holes in the speech were gaping, like who exactly is going to pay for that “great, great wall” Trump again promised would run along the Mexican border and how, or what kind of guidance he might give on that infrastructure plan that was supposed to be his big revolutionary success right out of the gate and instead remains a mystery stuck on a shelf somewhere in the West Wing. Repeal and replace Obamacare, and somehow in Trump’s telling American healthcare would end up cheaper, better and more widely available under a completely different plan.
That’s not to mention the budget abracadabra Trump promised by implementing those infrastructure and healthcare plans, massively raising the military budget, creating paid family leave, cutting taxes and managing not to increase the deficit along the way.
But politics is a lot of theater, and there’s nothing more theatrical than a presidential address to a joint session of Congress.
“The thing is, he’s behaved so badly that if he doesn’t behave badly, people think he’s getting better,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), now the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee. "He’s not getting better. This was a theatrical performance. That’s all that it was, and nobody should be fooled by it."
The Democratic talking points were apparent: Nice speech, sure, but focus on the actions, not the words.
"This is another one of his speeches where he talks like a populist, but the way he's been governing is totally the opposite. He has been governing from the hard right," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on CNN after the speech. "Until his reality catches up with his speeches, he's got big trouble."
“One speech cannot make the man,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.). “And he only had up to go at that point, given how he acted at his last press conference and the inaugural address.”
Democrats were almost daring Trump to follow through on being Mr. Conciliatory, which seems about as far off as his passing promise in the speech to have Americans soon landing on distant planets as part of new space missions.
“The tone doesn’t really matter,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), “if he’s not prepared to turn rhetoric into legislation.”