President Trump’s political opponents spent an hour waiting for a “gotcha” moment during his address to Congress Tuesday night, but the moment never came. Trump was, in the shadow of a blustery, harsh speech to the conservative CPAC gathering just days ago, measured and yes, presidential. He quoted Abraham Lincoln. He spoke of the importance of Black History Month. He supported guaranteed family leave. He shared the despair of vandalism against Jewish institutions and did not demagogue about Muslims.
He even called for bipartisanship in addressing problems like infrastructure needs on roads and bridges, which he said needs $1 trillion in public and private investment.
By far the most memorable and powerful moment in the speech came with Trump’s introduction of Carryn Owens, widow of Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in a recent operation in Yemen. Trump had given the order, and Ryan Owens’ father had refused to meet with the president. But his widow, crying and looking up, drew grateful and thunderous applause. The presentation of heroes is not uncommon in presidential speeches, but one involving a military person and a family seems to draw disparate political factions in the hall and elsewhere together.
While Trump preached bipartisanship and patriotism, he’ll have miles to go to achieve cooperation with Congress and to raise his support levels among the American people.
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His words Tuesday were good, and Americans can hope this really is a “restart” of Trump’s troubled beginning, one marked with advisers essentially talking about dismantling government agencies and speeches from the president that resembled the bombast he enjoyed so much on the campaign. (During the CPAC speech, audience members actually chanted “Lock her up” in reference to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, reminiscent of Trump rallies.)
Policy-wise, Trump continued to hit “Obamacare” in his speech, talking about repeal and replacement, but the difficulty of that appears to have hit home with at least some of Trump’s advisers and certainly some members of Congress, who got earfuls at town hall meetings during a recent break. Taking apart a system that has helped insure 22 million people is no mean feat — and one tracking poll taken during Trump’s speech showed the Affordable Care Act isn’t nearly as unpopular with the public as the president and Republicans might like to believe. And his talk of “health care savings accounts” as part of a solution is troubling: It’s hard to have a health care savings account if a family has no income margin.
The president may have made drug companies nervous with his vow to cut prices, an action that is desperately needed for an industry that seems to arbitrarily raise prices.
Trump’s advocacy of tremendous increases in the military budget is a populist political stance, as is his wall between the U.S. border and Mexico, but to his credit, Trump didn’t drop back to his anger-driven campaign speeches on those subjects. And while his immigration policies, or proposed policies, will not be as welcoming as Democrats rightly advocate, President Trump seems to be moving at least a little on the subject.
One hopes, of course, that the change in Trump as seen Tuesday reflects a true recognition on his part that a president who wishes to govern effectively must leave behind the candidate building his base on emotional issues and division. A change, a moderation, will displease some of Trump’s hard-core supporters, but the political reality is that many of those supporters made their statement on Election Day, voting against Clinton, and may have little interest in the issues going forward.
So Trump really does have an opportunity to act with the unity he preached Tuesday. His foes in Congress will be waiting, of course, for the “old Trump,” the tweeter and the braggart, to return. But let’s hope the “new” Trump in evidence Tuesday is the one who will now govern as president.