After all the irate tweets, the inflammatory language about immigrants, women and minorities, after giving an inauguration speech with a chip on his shoulder, the bar for President Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress was set low. Mostly, the president cleared it Tuesday.
Trump delivered a very presidential speech. It laid out his priorities (defense and infrastructure), suggested broad reforms (immigration) and even recognized that fixing health-care insurance was more complicated than he first realized. (That will have to pass for humility in this president.)
It did not have the twinkling charm of Ronald Reagan, the vigorous humor of John F. Kennedy or even the winking folksiness of George W. Bush. But it also lacked most (not all) of the other baggage we’ve seen in Trump – braggadocio, vulgarity and petty attacks on those he considers an enemy of the organization.
If he had given this speech on Jan. 20, during his inauguration, perhaps thousands of Americans would not have felt compelled to make life miserable for Republican legislators by flooding their town hall meetings.
Much of what he said was met by applause – raucous on one side, polite on the other. We can join in some of that applause.
He spoke of paid family leave, fighting the “drug epidemic” and his support for NATO. We especially liked his big, bold vision of a trillion-dollar infrastructure program powered by government and private investment. Our nation needs new airports, roads, bridges and dams. We also need an ultra-fast information highway, a sustainable power grid, smarter homes, rural hospitals and much more. A trillion bucks could give us a good start; Wall Street certainly thought so, with the Dow Jones closing above 21,000 for the first time Wednesday.
We also appreciate that Trump repeated his commitment to health care for everyone – not just those who can afford it. We’re not enamored of the retread Republican concepts he offered – block grants, medical savings accounts and high-risk pools. And we doubt that being able to shop nationwide for insurance will actually bring down prices. But there’s room to negotiate.
And that’s what Trump appeared to be looking for – negotiating partners. Perhaps it’s dawning on him that he needs the goodwill of more Americans (even if he doesn’t need any Congressional Democrats) to get anything done. Some of his comments offered a map to a small parcel of common ground.
But nowhere in his speech did Trump mention budget deficits – something Republicans have decried throughout the Obama era.
Tax cuts? Enormous increases in military expenditures? The wall? Supposedly fiscally conservative Republicans applauded furiously, but we wonder if they’ve thought through how much all of this will cost.
When Trump promised that “dying industries will come roaring back to life,” it sounded like the chants of Native American ghost dancers who believed they could bring the buffalo herds back to life. By chastising American companies for investment abroad and tearing up trade treaties, Trump pounded the drum of protectionism and trade war – not an economic renaissance.
In that and some of his other words, we found reminders of the Donald Trump we expected. He renewed his insistence on building his monument to being a bad neighbor. Then he doubled down, announcing a special office to track the violent crimes of immigrants. That was a direct appeal to the fear and prejudice of some Americans.
In that, he didn’t clear even the low bar he set for himself. Rather, he tried to crawl under it.