It was the sort of carefully crafted, let’s-work-together address that most Americans expect any president to deliver. But until Tuesday night, Trump has rarely drawn emotional satisfaction while reading through a layered, internally organized speech meant to include Americans who did not vote for him.
Even Trump’s suit jacket, usually agape and voluminous, was buttoned up as he spoke from the well of the House to a joint session of Congress.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved. … Our citizens deserve this, and so much more, so why not join forces and finally get the job done and get it done right?” the president asked, drawing an invisible circle in the air while pointing at his audience.
“On this and so many other things, Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country and for the good of the American people,” he said in a subdued tone of voice.
Trump conceded during an interview this week that his erratic communications had been less than stellar since taking office. With a majority of Americans saying they disapprove of the job he’s doing, according to the RealClearPolitics poll average, Trump used the traditional event to try to right his ship and discipline his narrative.
His efforts along those lines may prove temporary, but there was no doubt the speech marked a transition to a higher-stakes phase of Trump’s presidency. The election is receding as an easy, no-cost touchstone, and governing this month and beyond will test the president’s legislative and negotiating skills, his outreach to Americans who don’t support his policies, and his patience in dealing with leaders abroad.
Just this week, efforts to find a replacement for the Affordable Care Act stalled anew because Republicans in both the House and Senate cannot reach a consensus.
"The goal is for the administration, the House and the Senate to be in the same place. We're not there yet," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
If they cannot move beyond Obamacare this summer, lawmakers could discover that GOP ambitions to cut taxes for businesses and individuals are stalled, too. Tax reform, mentioned without great detail, remains the next major legislative project on Trump’s to-do list this year (or early in 2018).
Trump repeated his campaign vow that Obamacare will be “repealed and replaced.”
Rather than mandate that almost all Americans prove they have health insurance coverage, as the law requires, the president said, “the way to make health insurance available to everyone is to lower the cost of health insurance, and that is what we are going to do.” He did not define what “available to everyone” entails, nor did he explain how insurance costs would fall.
Americans with pre-existing conditions should be able to “access” private health coverage, Trump said. He did not suggest insurers would be barred from discriminating (as they are under the ACA), or that policies would be “affordable” for people with pre-existing conditions.
To help Americans pay for health insurance if not offered by employers, Trump said he favors “tax credits” – incentives available to those who earn enough to file federal and state tax returns -- and “expanded health savings accounts” to “help Americans purchase their own coverage” from private insurers. Under Obamacare, the government subsidizes premium costs based on family size and income, in relation to four tiers of private health plans established by the law.
Trump, in passing, referenced the scourge of illegal drugs and other crimes, as well as his ambition to cut government spending other than for the Pentagon and for veterans. He boasted about the administration’s withdrawal from the 12-nation trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he said the shuttering of manufacturing plants was tied to the North American Free Trade Agreement, in effect since the mid-1990s. The president said he would increase economic growth and create new jobs, while lowering the nation’s accumulated debt.
But immigration was at the heart of his presentation. Although the president has for weeks focused on enforcement of existing law to curb illegal migration, he surprised some by suggesting that Democrats and Republicans could try again to enact new immigration law. During the GOP primaries, Trump frequently mocked some opponents, particularly Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for initially favoring a bipartisan immigration reform effort that subsequently died in the House. Trump’s victory and his base of supporters discouraged Republicans from envisioning immigration reforms as anything but political dynamite.
“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: To improve jobs and wages for Americans; to strengthen our nation's security; and to restore respect for our laws,” the president said. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
Trump’s executive order barring travelers and refugees from seven Muslim-dominated countries, which was blocked in federal court in late January, may undergo a White House makeover this week, but a new order would likely to head back to court.
Some Republicans, especially those who want Trump to lead his party to health care and tax-cut achievements by next year, told reporters they were relieved that Trump abandoned his social media persona on Tuesday night to appear more statesmanlike.
Democrats, who for 40 days have energetically rejected Trump’s ideas --and many of his Cabinet nominees -- applauded his calls to reduce the costs of prescription drugs, and invest heavily to create jobs by repairing decaying roads, ports, bridges and airports.
But they remain leery of Trump’s policies on health care, deregulation, immigration, Wall Street, taxes, and Russia. They favor increasing defense spending, but not if it also means gutting funding for the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as favoring charter schools over public schools.
Trump, however, told his audience that it is up to both parties to come together “for the good of the country.” And he dangled a list of policies crafted to sound attractive to Democrats, albeit with scant details.
On his list: accessible and “affordable” child care; paid family leave for “new parents”; unspecified investments in “women’s health”; and federal promotion of “clean air and clean water.”
Turning to international policy, Trump sought to erase misgivings that his “America first” agenda poses a threat to international institutions and allies. Gone were last year’s suggestions that the United States in a Trump administration might leave NATO.
“Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust, and meaningful engagement with the world,” the president said. “It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies all across the globe.
“We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two world wars, that dethroned fascism and a Cold War, and defeated communism,” he added to loud applause.
But countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance “must meet their financial obligations” of 2 percent of their gross domestic product for defense, Trump repeated, before ad-libbing that “the money is pouring in. Very nice.”
The president sounded every bit the warrior when describing his determination to destroy ISIS. He repeated the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which his predecessor avoided and some in Trump’s own administration argue is counterproductive and misplaced.
“We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet,” he pledged.
The president this week received a plan to combat ISIS, devised by his national security team, led by Defense Secretary James Mattis. But Trump has not publicly described any decisions he has made as commander-in-chief to mobilize U.S. or other forces to eliminate the Islamic State as a threat.
During his remarks, Trump also cast himself as a peacemaker: “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found.”
For an hour Tuesday, Trump flashed his peace signs everywhere: to Democratic lawmakers, whose support he will need in the Senate; to independent voters, whose backing for the president waned in recent weeks; to international heads of state and global organizations, who worry about American leadership; to governors, who want to keep Medicaid expansion created under Obamacare; to police and citizens of color, who all battle crime; and to Republicans, who worry that Trump’s governance could sink them at the ballot box next year.
Many presidents during similar speeches described ties they envisioned to a more innovative, prosperous future. Trump, the disruptor, sounded somewhat tamed by his first five weeks in office. He set his rhetorical sights on a horizon nine years hence, when America will celebrate its 250th year.
“We must build bridges of cooperation and trust, not drive the wedge of disunity,” the president said.
“The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us,” he added, to audible tittering.
“We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts, the bravery to express the hopes that stir our souls, and the confidence to turn those hopes and those dreams into action.”