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The Straits Times says

Giving substance to Trump's rhetoric

Mr Donald Trump's speech to the United States Congress, his first since assuming the presidency, was notable for its calibrated tone. For eschewing much of his trademark combativeness and for delivering a marketable message that was described by the American media as "uplifting and unifying", he was given standing ovations by his fellow Republicans. An altogether-different Mr Trump declared "a new chapter in American greatness". Was this really the man who had provoked such bitter discord during the presidential campaign and its immediate aftermath?

Judging from the reaction of the markets, it seems Americans want to believe Mr Trump is capable of being a catalyst of positive change, even though his speech contained several elements of the classic Trump persona. For example, he heaped criticism on the Affordable Care Act, crowed about his decision to withdraw from the "job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership" and announced a special office to serve victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. But the other side of Mr Trump acknowledged his presidential duty to condemn hate, including the recent shooting of two Indian engineers in Kansas.

World audiences were no doubt gratified to hear a new Trump proclaim that the US would "strongly support Nato", reversing his own previous positions. He also underscored American commitment to the Pacific, while expecting partner nations to pay their share of the cost and to take a "direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations". In such an environment, America's allies would find that the US is once again ready to lead, he declared.

While blithely short on specifics, his domestic messages are bound to go down well, namely, cracking down on the drug menace and creating jobs for the one in five Americans of prime working age who does not have one. Main Street will welcome his pledge to rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure, while Wall Street hails moves to cut down on government regulation. And the military industrial complex will thrill at his vow to spend an additional US$54 billion (S$76 billion) building up the war machine. Giving substance to his rhetoric is the hard part. Populism can only go so far to rally people as, ultimately, people will want results that only realism can deliver. For example, in a world of global supply chains, his stress on Made in America is out of sync with the times, especially if taken to extremes. Infrastructure building that rules out better technology and cheaper solutions from abroad could disadvantage and burden American users for generations. And limiting consumer choices by presidential diktat might weigh on both working and non-working Americans. Better outcomes are possible if the measured side of Mr Trump accepts that free trade and fair trade are not mutually exclusive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Giving substance to Trump's rhetoric'. Print Edition | Subscribe