It is obvious and probably redundant to say that President Donald Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress was a political event without precedent or prototype. The president’s speech was traditional and temperate by Trump standards. The political setting of the speech, however, was extraordinary by historical standards.
Trump’s approval rating indicates he is struggling after little more than a month in the White House. The nation learned, however, that such traditional measures did not apply to candidate Trump. The question now is whether they will apply to a President Trump? We do not know yet.
What we do know is that the president addressed Congress with full bravado and minimal specificity.
Trump’s opening was topical and unusual. He said, “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.”
Trump quickly turned to more familiar themes and language. “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart,” he said.
“A new chapter of American Greatness is now beginning,” he continued. “A new national pride is sweeping across our nation.”
As is now common in State of the Union speeches (and that is what this was except in name), Trump had guests in the gallery to illustrate his goals and beliefs. He touched on most every issue on the national docket. He rarely strayed from his prepared text and read from a teleprompter.
The speech did not, however, add specifics to old platitudes or offer new policies to old problems. There were some new phrases, but no new plans.
And there was no blunt, Trump-style talk about the political reality he faces in Congress. There was no mention of Russia and no press bashing.
There were few hints, however, of how Trump intends to navigate political terrain that is getting more hostile by the day. And the Democratic Party is not even high on the list of obstacles.
On the broadest level, Trump is the most unpopular new president in the history of polling, as has been widely reported. According to the Gallup poll, 42 percent approve of the job Trump is doing, 54 percent disapprove. While his support among Republicans is holding, there is none of the usual honeymooning with Independents and Democrats.
Further, Trump “resisters” are newly active and organized as many Republican members of Congress learned when they returned to their districts to find protesters and critics at every turn. What isn’t clear yet is how much public opinion and public protests are influencing — or scaring — GOP lawmakers.
What is perfectly clear is that the conflicts and challenges Trump faces from his own party have expanded sharply since the period between his nomination and inauguration.
Indeed, one of the most influential Republicans in the House, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, took the curious and high-profile step of writing an op-ed piece about Trump’s leadership in the “enemy” newspaper Trump attacks most — The New York Times. Cole wrote that there are “divisions in Republican ranks in Congress” on Pentagon spending, the Affordable Care Act, tax cuts and domestic spending.
“Only presidential leadership can resolve them,” Cole wrote. “And resolving each issue will require President Trump to take ownership of the final decision and sell it to different factions within the Republican Party, and to the country as a whole. Presidents must lead…” Those are not honeymoon words.
Did the president’s speech to Congress provide the GOP with that kind of leadership? Perhaps it did on the level of morale and salesmanship, but not with specific new decisions and details.
There is no more fundamental conflict than that between Trumpism and Ryanism. Speaker Paul Ryan made his name pushing for small government, balanced budgets and major entitlement reform as the key to achieving that. Trump has taken Medicare and Social Security off the table, demanded large increases in military spending and offered no budget-balancing scheme a majority of Republicans find practical or ideologically sound.
Trump did not address these conflicts directly in his speech and might have deepened some of them. He repeated his call for a trillion dollar investment in infrastructure, which budget hawks hate, but gave no details except that the program should buy American and hire American.
The president renewed his called for tax reform and cuts. “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,” he said. “At the same time, we will provide massive tax relief for the middle class. It will be a big, big cut.”
But there were no specifics and no accounting for how tax cuts would fit in with budget balancing.
Glaring splits within the GOP on the Affordable Care Act are deepening and there was little in Trump’s speech to repair the cracks.
“Tonight, I am also calling on this Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump said, as he did throughout the campaign. He offered no new roadmap or details. He did call for bipartisanship: “So I am calling on all Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to work with us to save Americans from this imploding Obamacare disaster.” That is rather odd language with which to court Democrats.
Trump did not give the GOP Congress what it wanted on health care — specific marching orders. Meanwhile, Republican governors are pushing back against hard-core repeal advocates in Congress. And in a speech last weekend, Trump said, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” That left jaws dropped on a fully bipartisan scale.
Republicans remain confused about the president’s intentions on immigration, especially after he signaled a major shift when he told news anchors Tuesday that he was now open to giving legal standing to millions of undocumented residents. Is this a real shift or just an off-the cuff quip?
The president’s speech didn’t clear that up. “My Administration has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security. By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions and billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone,” he said, as he did throughout the campaign. “We want all Americans to succeed —but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos.”
Just a month into the new term, high-profile Republicans are criticizing Trump at a higher decibel-level than during the campaign and transition. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been ferocious in attacking Trump on national security issues. Former President George W. Bush, who was silent in the campaign, subtly criticized Trump about immigration and his attacks on the press.
“Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse power, whether it be here or elsewhere,” Bush warned, not so subtly.
None of this seems to have tempered President Trump’s metal. Trump described his vision of the future, declaring, “We will look back on tonight as when this new chapter of American Greatness began.”
Many Republicans in Congress, however, are still looking for the first real chapter of the Trump administration to begin.