While the most emotional moment of President Trump’s appearance before the joint session of Congress was the tribute to fallen warrior William “Ryan” Owens, the most striking aspect of tonight’s lengthy speech was not the lyrics, but the tone. In a sharp departure from his acceptance speech and his inaugural address, the speech was enfolded in the more traditional messages of presidents past: we are strong, we will prevail, the future is bright.
It’s not that Trump abandoned his past portrait of an America under siege. “For too long,” he said, “we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries….We’ve defended the borders of other nations, while leaving our own borders wide open, for anyone to cross — and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate. And we’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”
It’s what followed that was, if not wholly new, pushed front and center for the first time.
“Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need… Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land. Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately, stop. And our neglected inner cities will see a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity.”
What happened to the American “carnage” of his inaugural? As the Queens-raised President might have said, Fuggehdabouit! It’s morning again in America.
When it came to the lyrics, however, the President departed from the path taken by his predecessors. All of them were far more familiar with the intricacies of government than Trump. So it might have been simply a matter of comfort that he spoke in the broadest of generalities about his legislative intentions. Where Ronald Reagan spelled out his specific tax cut proposals, where Bill Clinton spelled out his specific tax increases on the affluent, President Trump said only: “My economic team is developing historic tax reform that will reduce the tax rate on our companies so they can compete and thrive anywhere and with anyone. At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class.”
How, without blowing a multi-trillion dollar hole in the deficit, given his proposals for a huge defense buildup, a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending, and no cuts in entitlements?
On the key policy debate of the next several months—what to do about health care—the President said this: “Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare with reforms that expand choice, increase access, lower costs, and at the same time, provide better healthcare.”
Again, how? The President did not tell us, because the President does not know; nor do his Republican colleagues in the Congress, after seven years of denouncing Obamacare. Lowering costs, expanding coverage, protecting those with pre-existing conditions, eliminating mandates and lowering drug costs at the same time is a hot-fudge-sundae diet, and nothing Trump said tonight offers any hint that the circle has or can be squared.
Still, it was the tone where the President clearly sought to step away from the image he has done so much to created for himself: the holder of endless grudges, consumed by resentments, often unwilling to acknowledge even the most obvious of facts. He stayed mostly within the bounds of acknowledged facts, and steered clear of the blood-and-soil nationalism that colored his stark, short inaugural address just a month ago.
There is no little irony in his promise that “from now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears,” given how much his campaign stoked such fears. There is no little irony is his declaration that “the time for trivial fights is behind us” considering the onslaught of tweets about imagined slights on the smallest of matters. But even if tonight’s sweet notes are replaced by snarling tweets and scornful falsehoods tomorrow, there is reason to welcome his speech. Even if you don’t believe he meant it, remember: “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” At least for tonight, the President and his team understood where virtue resides.