Published in The Moderate Voice on March 1, 2017
Last night, Donald Trump delivered his much anticipated speech to a joint session of Congress and he might well have opened it with the words, “Allow me to introduce myself.” For there seemed to be a new Donald Trump for that occasion.
The words we are hearing to describe the address include presidential, optimistic, and conciliatory. It’s also fact that Trump was so on-script that one must wonder whether the speech he ultimately gave was inserted into the teleprompter by the same person who handed Warren Beatty the envelope that mistakenly inferred that “La La Land” had won the “Best Picture” award at the Oscars. Still, delivery and messages were what the America people were looking for and, without commenting on the content of the speech (I am a stickler for providing analysis that is both independent and non-partisan), the president did what he needed to do in order to start stemming the bleeding from a pugnacious style, message dysfunction, and at times, uniformed or inarticulate aides. Someone evidently prevailed on Trump that it’s not always necessary to come off like Dirty Harry when you’re no longer on the campaign trail and the speech showed. But now comes the hard part which begs the question: was this just one moment in time?
First off, centering the speech around the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence showed creativity emblematic of most major presidential addresses. While that might not normally be a theme for an address to Congress (it might have proven more effective in an inaugural address), it shows that the White House and, in all probability the president himself, knew that the message structure and delivery has proven his biggest impediment thus far.
The president opened his address on exactly the right note – a harsh condemnation of expressions of hate toward the Jewish community and the shooting of an Indian-American in Kansas. That was an important message to send in such a high profile setting. But it is important to ask: if this continues, will he continue to express outrage in more low profile settings, without prompting? One thing Trump did mention was his willingness to “work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy (ISIS) from our planet.” That was definite outreach to a faith that desperately needed to know that they are not forgotten by the president. Now he shouldn’t have to wait until a key address after a divisive campaign to do it, but he did. Which brings us to the legislative wish-list Trump outlined.
The president delineated a great deal of priorities for the coming year. All of these are very ambitious in scope that will require a great deal of legislative maneuvering and links that could easily fall apart. This process fits the classic definition of sausage making. Among the most ambitious priorities: a trillion dollar infrastructure package, immigration reform and of course, repealing and replacing Obamacare. Unless the White House is going to keep nearly every Republican on board, which is going to be mission impossible given recent comments from Freedom Caucus alone, the Trump White House will need at least some Democratic support. On his infrastructure plans, it’s a given. On immigration, it’s probable given Trump’s recent language about compromise and on Obamacare, it’s next to impossible.
Trump is clearly aware of the dynamics – both partisan and on his side. He did not take any shots at his peers last night but, will that continue? Will he keep going after those who express disagreement with his objectives in stump speeches, on twitter, and by name? That has helped create an image in folks minds it takes far more than one speech to erase. Finally, will the Trump White House play nice, not get wrapped up in “alternative facts,” etc. As it happened, the accuracy of many of the statistics the president cited was out there. For instance, his claim that 94,000,000 Americans are not part of the work-force. In a nation of 300 million, even if he were excluding kids, if that were true the national unemployment rate would be nearly a third. No one thinks that’s even close to reality.
The conciliatory tone came the same day Trump acknowledged that his White House had not been adroit when it comes to messaging. He admitted he’d give himself a “C, maybe C+” on messaging which might have surprised those who doubted his ability to admit faults.
There were one or two moments of the speech that I considered unfortunate. One, I felt the president should have referred to the Affordable Care Act rather than Obamacare. Minor it may be but doing the former would have been more appropriate given the dignity of the speech. And singling out Kentucky, specifically Republican Governor Matt Bevin as an example of the troubles of Obamacare was likely a shot at ex-Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, who was likely polishing his remarks to give the Democratic response.
In closing, Delaware Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat, was on to something when he called the speech “much more aspirational, much less divisive.” But where it goes from here will determine Trump’s success – and ours. After all, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words that “the only way to have a friend is to be one” is most true of Washington D.C. than perhaps anywhere else in the world.