Like most presidential presentations, Donald Trump’s initial venture into the soaring chamber of the House of Representatives looked and sounded good, producing some positive reactions that could expand the embattled president’s short-term support.
But such speeches tend to have a very short half-life.
Trump’s hourlong address made solving massive national problems sound possible, from creating a more vibrant economy to revamping and expanding health care, if only both parties follow his lead. From his opening words condemning racial and religious hatred to repeated pleas for Democratic and Republican cooperation, Trump sought to set a less confrontational tone than he has exhibited in his first month in office.
The problem, as Ronald Reagan used to say in discussing arms control talks, is that the devil is in the details. Most Republicans who jumped repeatedly to their feet to cheer the new president would have likely condemned such promises as unrealistic and unachievable had they come from a Democrat.
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Their almost automaton-like responses underscored the fact that Trump is almost totally dependent on fellow Republicans to enact his proposals. Democrats, who mostly sat silently, show little sign of embracing them, and even some Republicans are skeptical about the contradiction between his soaring pledges and proposals that would reduce the government’s resources even further.
“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved,” Trump insisted, declaring “Democrats and Republicans should get together and unite for the good of our country and for the good of the American people.” But that and his statement “the time for trivial fights is behind us” seemed less meaningful from a president who derided House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi earlier Tuesday as “incompetent.”
He pledged “a big, big cut” in business taxes and “massive tax relief” for middle class Americans, plus “one of the largest increases” ever in defense spending and a trillion dollar infrastructure program. He touted Obamacare reforms that “expand choice, increase access, lower costs and at the same time provide better health care,” with “access to coverage” for those with pre-existing conditions now guaranteed coverage and tax credits to help Americans buy their own coverage, basically the plan House Republicans are crafting.
But he said nothing about curbing the deficit, except to decry the increased national debt over the last eight years, or limiting the budget’s fastest growing parts, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And he continued to portray a country far weaker than it is, citing 94 million out of the labor force and 43 million in poverty while ignoring the fact that falling unemployment is nearing what most economists consider “full employment.”
Democrats like Trump’s proposal to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and tunnels. But many question his stress on using private capital, while Republicans generally oppose any massive new federal funds.
Even on immigration, where Trump apparently told TV anchors he might be open to the kind of comprehensive measure he previously opposed, he confined himself to proposing “a merit-based system,” rather than “this current system of lower-skilled immigration.”
He sidestepped the crucial issue of providing a path to legal status or even citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country.
In addition to urging an array of legislative goals that will challenge a Congress already struggling with the complexities of Obamacare and tax reform, Trump presented a typically self-congratulatory listing of his “progress” in fulfilling campaign promises. He made no mention of his oft-stated desire to ease U.S. relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
And in the night’s emotional high point, he sent tears streaming down the cheeks of the widow of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens when he said Defense Secretary James Mattis assured him of the oft-criticized Yemen mission’s value, adding, “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. And Ryan is looking down right now.”
But his focus was domestic and the degree to which his presidency will provide “a new chapter in American greatness.” A CNN poll showed a majority of viewers reacted positively. Though, as has frequently been the case, Trump attracted lower support than former Presidents Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s initial speeches to Congress.
Two things will almost certainly follow. Congressional Republicans will press ahead with what Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” are “the opportunities the Trump presidency provides” to enact their long-standing agenda.
And though the White House delayed Wednesday’s scheduled issuance of a revised immigration limitation order, Trump’s speech will likely be overtaken quickly by continuing dramatic displays of executive authority.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.