Delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress as chief executive, Donald Trump on Tuesday night achieved something that has largely eluded him in the weeks since taking the oath of office: he managed to look presidential.
His hour-long address was sober and focused, avoiding the discursive rambling that characterizes much of his public speaking. He hit on the issues that animated both his campaign and the first days of his presidency: restricting immigration, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, funding a massive infrastructure program, and investing huge sums in a military buildup. At the same time, he failed to address many of the challenges the country faces on the world stage, including Russian aggression and the ongoing crises in Syria and across the Middle East.
Trump’s performance earned immediate accolades from pundits accustomed to watching him deliver unscripted speeches in which he lurches from topic to topic, hurling epithets at his opponents and red meat to his base. CNN commentator Van Jones and Fox News host Chris Wallace, hardly ideological soulmates, independently proclaimed that with the speech Trump “became president of the United States.”
It’s worth pausing to consider just how far the bar has been lowered here. As presidential addresses go, this was not Lincoln’s Second Inaugural or even FDR’s first. For the most part, Trump delivered a workman-like recitation of the words on his teleprompter and avoided saying anything too outrageous. The rapturous reception seems to reflect as much surprise at his ability to behave like a president for the space of an hour as it does the reaction to the actual content of his remarks.
As many presidents have done before him, Trump populated the audience with guests meant to magnify the emotional punch of some parts of his remarks. In a particularly memorable moment, he drew attention to Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy SEAL William Ryan Owens, who died during a raid in Yemen six days into Trump’s term.
The president has faced considerable criticism for the operation, which also took the lives of more than a dozen civilians. No senior terrorist figures were captured or killed in the raid, and there have been conflicting reports about the value of the intelligence that was gathered from it. And, in a sharp break from precedent, Trump suggested in an interview with Fox News that the responsibility for Owens’ death lay with “the generals” who devised the operation, not with him as commander-in-chief.
However, Trump lingered on the subject for some time Tuesday night, leading a lengthy standing ovation for Mrs. Owens, and quoting Secretary of Defense James Mattis as saying, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.”
Directing his words to a weeping Mrs. Owens, he added, “Ryan's legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you. Ryan is looking down right now. You know that. And he is very happy because I think he just broke a record.” The “record” appeared to be a reference to the long round of applause.
A recurring theme in Trump’s remarks was a call to Democrats in Congress to come together with Republicans to pass some of Trump’s legislative priorities. The opposition party, which has little formal power in the capital, has been resisting the confirmation of many of the president’s cabinet appointees and has so far shown little appetite for compromise.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed,” Trump said. “Every problem can be solved. And every hurting family can find healing and hope. Our citizens deserve this, and so much more — so why not join forces to finally get it done? 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.”
As he summed up, though, he seemed to belittle the concerns of the members of Congress who have opposed his agenda. “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.”
With the words “trivial fights,” he gestured to his right, where the Democrats in the audience were sitting, producing audible grumbling.
Trump opened his remarks with a long-awaited condemnation of bigotry and racially charged violence, something he has been sharply criticized for failing to address when given multiple opportunities over the past several weeks.
“Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation's path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
In a press conference in February, Trump had suggested that a well-documented surge in anti-Semitic acts and threats following his inauguration might actually be attributable to his political opponents trying to make him look bad.
The overall tone of the speech, hopeful and optimistic, was markedly different from the inaugural address that Trump delivered on January 20, which was replete with dark descriptions of a country in decline and beset by enemies.
Whether or not the speech reflects a lasting change of tone from the Trump administration is something that will only become apparent in the weeks and days ahead, as the president continues to push his agenda through executive orders and calls on Congress to pass legislation