Donald Trump addressed Congress on 28 February, in a speech which was billed as a “reset” of his relationship with lawmakers. But has anything really changed? Here are five things we learned:
1. He can give a presidential address
The rhetoric and delivery of Tuesday’s speech was unlike anything seen on the campaign trail – or during the five weeks since President Trump’s inauguration. Measured comment and a surprisingly positive message replaced the usual blustering demeanour and talk of “American carnage”, while asinine soundbites – such as “America will start winning again, winning like never before” of inauguration speech fame – were spread much more liberally (yes, the irony there is clear).
It is unfortunate for President Trump that he follows one of the greatest orators of the century – Barack Obama – but it is therefore the job of his speechwriters to give their president a platform from which he can successfully deliver his message – even if the message is anathema to many.
However, his supporters need not worry that he is morphing into a slick, polished politician, the sort he railed against on the campaign trail. When left to ad-lib, President Trump threw in a few old fan favourites, digging out “very ugly” and “so important”, before employing his traditional pause-laden delivery of Radical. Islamic. Extremism.
2. Trump is still peddling fake news
The speech offered a brief respite from President Trump’s war of words against the media, yet the content itself was still full of erroneous facts and disingenuous statements for his supposed ‘opposition party’ to highlight – one of the new commander in chief’s pet hates.
President Trump’s claim that American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world is a difficult one to stand up, with the Organisation for Economic and Co-operation Development ranking it as 31 out of 34 industrialised nations for tax revenue as a percentage of GDP.
The staggering statement that 94m Americans are out of work was certainly one to make any listener sit up and take notice – yet that eight-figure sum is based on the number of those over 16 who are not currently employed, including high school and college students, stay-at-home parents and retirees. There are not 94m citizens currently unable to find work.
Other statements failing to offer the context they required ranged from a rise in murder rates to Obamacare’s imminent collapse – the latter of which prompted a standing ovation from Republicans.
3. Trump’s tax reform bill remains a miracle
Not in the good sense. Trump’s much heralded tax reform plan is slated to be released this month, but there remains great unease as to whether the sums really can stack up.
While neither the time nor place for the minutiae that will offset proposed wide-ranging tax cuts, the speech appeared very much the product of a billionaire who founded his fortune with nothing but a positive attitude and a few million dollars in his pocket – spend, spend, spend.
President Trump may have slammed the debt added by the last administration, but his borrowing plans are at odds with the Republican party’s traditional approach and his 2018 budget blueprint may fail to gain its support.
4. A commander-in-chief does more than hold the purse strings
Key to the budget will be a hike in defence spending, one of President Trump’s flagship campaign policies, which was reiterated and well-received. However, his reference to the US Navy special operator Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens – he praised the legacy of the Navy Seal, killed in a botched raid in Yemen early in his presidency – left a bitter taste.
President Trump’s refusal to accept responsibility for his actions is nothing new – from attempting to brush off the infamous ‘hot mic’ incident as “locker room banter” to blaming an aide when called out by a reporter for inaccurate election figures, we know he does not back down. A necessary quality perhaps in a commander-in-chief, but so too is acceptance that the buck stops with the president. Yet in the hours before the speech, at which Owens’ widow was a guest, President Trump blamed the military for the Yemen raid in which the navy seal lost his life.
The extra 54bn in defence spending proposed can’t be used to plug cracks in the trust between President Trump and the military if it feels he will point the finger whenever a mission that he authorised does not go to plan.
5. Congress is a microcosm of America
President Trump might have called for forging new friendships and peace, harmony and stability in his summing up, but there was a distinct lack of any of the above in Congress, with the floor as divided as the nation. Granted, the Democrats enjoyed a majority in 2009 during President Obama’s first speech, but the chamber appeared united in its support, if not for the president, then at least for working together over the next two years.
The atmosphere on Tuesday could not have been more different. Democrats appeared awkward and unsure of the etiquette in responding to the new president, while Republicans rose and fell in bursts of applause (let’s not go so far as to call it a Mexican wave).
The Democrats were in a difficult position. They have a duty to work with their fellow elected representatives, and Tuesday’s performance will only give fuel to those who believe Democrats are still mourning the loss of the election. However, so radical are Trump’s views, Democrats must prove a strong opposition – although they’ll need to do a lot more than sit on their hands for the next four years.