Was Trump’s speech before Congress a pivot point?
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

President Donald Trump does not readily admit errors.

For him to make major changes in the way he presents himself is probably as close as he could ever come to admitting that his administration might have started off on the wrong foot.  

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In his inaugural address little more than one month ago, the new president launched a frontal attack on Washington politicians of all stripes. He said: “For too long, a small group in our nation's Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost…. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

 

He also painted a dark picture of a country strewn with the “American carnage” of poverty, rusted-out factories, a failing educational system, and crimes and gangs.

Last night, there was a markedly different tone. Towards the beginning, President Trump said:  “I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart.”  

And towards the close, he said: “The time for trivial fights is behind us…  I am asking all citizens to embrace this Renewal of the American Spirit.  I am asking all members of Congress to join me in dreaming big, and bold and daring things for our country.  And I am asking everyone watching tonight to seize this moment[.]”

Five weeks in the Oval Office seem to have taught a rookie politician one thing: if anything significant and enduring is going to be accomplished in Washington, it requires the support of Congress. The president, acting alone, can achieve only so much. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE’s own reversals of his predecessor’s executive orders certainly should have taught him that.

To accomplish his big goals of immigration reform, tax reform, rebuilding our infrastructure and our military, a new health-insurance scheme, confirming a new Justice of the Supreme Court, etc., the president will need, at a minimum, the almost unanimous support of Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate. And it couldn’t hurt to have some Democrats on board, as well.

Last night’s address contained many of the same themes we heard from President Trump on the campaign trail. He used his signature slogan, “Make America Great Again.” He promised to protect our country from “Radical Islamic Terrorism;” he referred to the soon-to-begin construction of a wall on our southern border; and there was of course the standard promise to repeal and replace ObamaCare.

Still, although familiar themes were sounded, the tone was different.  

When the border wall was mentioned, there was no demand that Mexico pay for it.  

When ISIS was mentioned, the president carefully noted that that terrorist group had “slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs.  

We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy[.]”

When he spoke of repealing and replacing ObamaCare, President Trump said his first priority would be to “ensure that Americans with pre-existing conditions have access to coverage, and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.”

This in itself will not be sufficient to satisfy Democrats, but it is at least a nod to several of their most serious concerns.  

He also promised to reduce the prices of drugs; even Bernie SandersBernie SandersSirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters Republicans not immune to the malady that hobbled Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election MORE would be happy with that.

The speech was not long on details. The president’s recent admission that “nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated” is a very clear indication that many of the details simply have not been worked out.

But the lack of specifics might not be a fatal flaw, because it’s clear that the speech was not directed to the lawmakers who were seated in front of the president. It was directed instead to tens of millions of Americans, to “everyone watching tonight”.  

President Trump’s approval ratings are at historically low levels. Last night’s address gave the president a perfect opportunity—and, perhaps, his last opportunity—to re-introduce himself as someone who wants to work with Congress, rather than attack it, and as someone who is focused on a bright tomorrow, rather than a grim past.

If the American people came away feeling that President Trump sincerely wants to work with both parties in advancing policies that will benefit average Americans, that sentiment will inevitably create pressure on legislators of both parties to cooperate.  

Of course, some Democratic lawmakers could never be tempted; their districts or States are too solidly liberal to permit them to appear to be working with the Trump administration. But there are others—particularly those who will be up for re-election in 2018 in districts or States that President Trump carried—who might feel differently.

And there are also Republicans who are wary of President Trump and doubt his fidelity to what they believe are true conservative principles. They, too, could be swayed by pressure from their constituents.

Last night’s speech will never be carved on a marble wall, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  The test of its effectiveness will be much more mundane: in the coming months and years, will the Congress enact into law the major policy goals of the Trump administration?

Only time will provide an answer.  Stay tuned. 

David E. Weisberg is an attorney, and a member of the New York state bar. His writing has appeared in the Social Science Research Network and in The Times of Israel.


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