5 key takeaways from Donald Trump's speech to US Congress

US President Donald Trump addressing a joint session of the US Congress on Feb 28, 2017, in the House chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
US President Donald Trump addressing a joint session of the US Congress on Feb 28, 2017, in the House chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - In President Donald Trump's world, boring is disruptive.

After five-plus weeks of gleefully setting the Washington establishment ablaze and declaring a new war with virtually every public utterance, Mr Trump took the radical step on Tuesday (Feb 28) night of delivering a soothing comfort food of an address to a jittery Congress and sceptical public.

For the first time since his swearing-in in January, Mr Trump seemed to accept the fetters of formality and tradition that define and dignify the presidency.

And while he touched on all of the hard-edge elements of the economic nationalist agenda that has impelled his executive orders and calls for "revolution", Mr Trump brandished a blunter rhetorical ax and, for once, delivered on his promise to speak the Reagan Republican dialect of optimism and reconciliation.

Why the sudden shift? Numbers. Mr Trump's approval rating is the worst for any new president in recorded history - between 38 and 50 per cent at a time when many presidents are in the 60s.

Slamming the news media or pro-Obamacare demonstrators energises his base, but it is hard to move much higher in the polls without making a less partisan pitch.

The other key statistic spurring his sunshine-and-civility adjustment: US$54 billion (S$76 billion) , the amount of federal funding he hopes to siphon from other departments to increase spending at the Pentagon - a budget proposal that is already half-dead on arrival, judging from its lukewarm reception on Capitol Hill this week.

Presidents, even those commanding comfortable majorities in both houses, need to get Congress in line, and the only way to do that is to declare peace.

Here are five takeaways from the most presidential speech Mr Trump has ever given - delivered at precisely the moment he needed to project sobriety, seriousness of purpose and self-discipline.

1. Which Donald Trump is Real?

The split-screen between Tuesday's temperate Trump and the everyday Trump was striking, to put it mildly.

"The time for trivial fights is over," said Mr Trump, a man who spent the first 48 hours of his presidency bickering about the size of the inauguration crowd. While that statement was meant as a challenge to his establishment critics, it also seemed as if he were coaching himself.

All of the previous big-stage speeches delivered by Mr Trump, from his nomination address in Cleveland last summer to his 16-minute inaugural speech, had a gloomy, mourning-in-America quality.

 

His aides promised a Ronald Reagan-inspired invocation of America's future in the days leading up to his swearing-in. What he delivered, thanks to his speechwriting team of Mr Stephen Miller and Mr Steve Bannon, was an invocation of "American carnage".

Since his swearing-in, Mr Trump roved the airwaves and Twitter, lashing out at anyone who opposed him, and many people who did not. In just the past couple of weeks, the President has reiterated his description of some news outlets as "enemies of the American people", while taking his shots at Paris, Sweden, Hill Democrats, the FBI, government leakers, former President Barack Obama and his own communications staff, among other targets.

But on Tuesday, the President rolled the dice, and went for nice. In style, if not substance, Mr Trump delivered an address that nearly any of his Republican primary opponents, whom he once savaged as establishment stooges, might have delivered had they been standing at the rostrum.

"That torch is now in our hands," Mr Trump said within the first few minutes of his speech, echoing, if not entirely approaching, the wispy mountaintop oratory of more polished predecessors like Mr Obama and Mr Reagan.

"And we will use it to light up the world. I am here tonight to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart."

Mr Trump has made immense progress sticking to a script, but Wednesday is a new day, and the presidential Twitter finger gets itchy in the middle of the week. The big question is whether his unifying tone represents the mythical, long-awaited pivot point - or was just part of a well-written speech efficiently delivered by a gifted politician learning his new trade.

2. A Swift Denunciation of Bigotry

Mr Trump has been criticised for his sluggish response to violence and vandalism against Jews, blacks and Muslims during his presidency. But the opening words of his speech were dedicated to tolerance and inclusion.

"Recent threats targeting Jewish community centres and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week's shooting in Kansas City," he said, "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 of its very ugly forms."

Again, it is hard to say if his statement reflected a genuine change of approach. Mr Trump and some allies have suggested that recent bias-related episodes might be false-flag attempts by his opponents to embarrass him.

But his words were welcomed in the House chamber, greeted by some of the most sustained applause of the evening.

3. Spiking the Football in the First Quarter

The polls have not been especially kind to Mr Trump lately, but there is one distinct bright spot: 56 per cent of voters in a Politico/Morning Consult poll released on Tuesday said that Mr Trump was following through on his campaign promises.

This is no small matter for a president eager to prove he is no mere talker. For all its messaging, personnel and operational struggles, Mr Trump's team has relentlessly executed a branding strategy aimed at projecting the image of a man of action fighting against gridlocked and corrupt Washington elites. Every day, Mr Trump appears before the cameras where he is shown em doing stuff /em like signing executive orders or convening panels of business, labour or political leaders.

"It's been a little over a month since my inauguration, and I want to take this moment to update the nation on the progress I've made in keeping those promises," he said, taking an extended bow for saving jobs at several factories across the country, renegotiating defence contracts, scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership, greenlighting two new fuel pipelines and cracking down on illegal immigration and criminal foreigners.

Never mind that Mr Obama, the man Mr Trump says left him "a mess" to clean up, had accomplished much more at this point in his term - including the stimulus package and a gender pay-equity law.

For all his newfound civility and message discipline, Mr Trump cares most about this takeaway - proving he is an effective president at a time when his administration is being portrayed in the media as short-handed, adrift and conflict-ridden.

4. A Serious Case of the Vagues

The President's speech had admirable length (it clocked in at just over 60 minutes), the requisite number of ovations, about 90, and a succession of punchy pronouncements. What it did not have was very much of an explanation on how Mr Trump plans to govern. There were hardly any details about his proposals on the big-ticket items that will most likely define his first term. That included his Obamacare repeal-and-replace pledge, his plan to overhaul the tax code, the big infrastructure package he has vowed to ram through, or even his plan to shovel $54 billion into the Defence Department.

5. What's Going On with Immigration?

Cracking down on illegal immigration is em the /em central pillar of Mr Trump's election-winning popularity with white working-class voters, so much so that it was the subject of his most decisive action thus far as President: the bungled roll-out of his executive order barring migrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

But Mr Trump and his team sent out some seriously mixed messages in the hours leading up to the address.

"We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border," Mr Trump declared, to the delight of many Republicans in the hall, who gave him a hearty standing ovation.

But earlier, in a sit-down with some of the country's leading news anchors, the President seemed to soften his stance considerably, as he has done previously in private, suggesting that legal status be granted to millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes. Immigration hard-liners, led by his Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, have long considered such a stance "amnesty".

Mr Trump never brought up the topic again - and did not touch on his prior reference to legalising undocumented immigrants - raising questions about what position he will stake out in negotiations with Congress.