Donald Trump praised for more measured speech, but Congress wants details

President Donald Trump's measured tone in his first speech to Congress lifted investor optimism.
Trump looks up while hosting a House and Senate leadership lunch at the White House, March 1, 2017.
Trump looks up while hosting a House and Senate leadership lunch at the White House, March 1, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Donald Trump reassured Americans with a well-received, more presidential address before Congress on his vision for the country's "renewal," but numerous questions remained on Wednesday (March 1) about the details and costs of his policies.

Lawmakers praised Trump's call for national unity - a far different tone than the dark vision of America he laid out in his inaugural address on Jan 20.

Wall Street appreciated Trump's words too, with US stocks surging back into record territory early Wednesday as the Dow topped 21,000 for the first time.

 

He pledged a "renewal of the American spirit" as he fleshed out his America-first agenda, invoking Abraham Lincoln, and reiterated his hardline campaign promises in a more measured tone.

"I think we were all really pleased last night to hear the President's unifying message. It was refreshing for everyone after such a difficult election season," Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Americans, he said, are "ready for a new start."

Trump brought Republicans and Democrats together in the opening moments by strongly criticising recent threats against Jewish community centres and condemning the seemingly racially-motivated killing of an Indian immigrant.

"It was a strong" and "positive" speech, Senator Ted Cruz told MSNBC, adding that Trump spoke to America's working men and women.

"This President was elected by the (Ronald) Reagan Democrats, by working-class voters and truck drivers and mechanics, and men and women with calluses on their hands, and he spoke to them last night."

While the 70-year-old Republican billionaire again promised a hard line on illegal immigration, he also called for a "restart" of the US economic engine, a boost in defence spending, reductions in violent crime, and deportation of dangerous criminal aliens like drug dealers.

He also reached out to opposition Democrats, reprising his call for a US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) infrastructure bill and expressing support for paid family leave and affordable child care.

And while he promised to replace his predecessor's landmark health-care reforms with a plan that would broaden choice, lower costs and improve access, he offered little in terms of how that would be achieved.

Trump's maiden address to a chamber of lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and generals, was delivered as the president grapples with multiple crises and faces historically low approval ratings.

But the reaction was largely positive.

Of respondents who watched the speech, 76 per cent approved, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll, while seven in 10 Americans came away feeling that Trump boosted optimism, a CNN/ORC poll of speech-watchers showed.

"THANK YOU!" Trump declared to his 25 million Twitter followers.

While Democrats took note of Trump's optimistic rhetoric and more positive tone on Tuesday night - he urged Americans to "dream big" as he put aside his traditional doom-and-gloom - they expressed scepticism about whether it would last.

"This was far less dark than the inaugural speech. And he has made an attempt to reach out," said House Democrat John Larson of Connecticut. "But the devil is in the details."

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer agreed.

"With Donald Trump, the speeches don't mean very much," he told CBS News.

"His speeches are populist. They're aimed at the working folks who supported him. But his governing and what he does is hard right, favoring special interests over the working class."

Trump also appeared to stray from Republican fiscal orthodoxy, as his massive infrastructure plan and call for tax credits to help pay for health coverage will likely run afoul of congressional ultra-conservatives intent on bringing down the national debt.

The "deficit spending" that Trump would likely employ set off alarm bells for congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who said he was dumbfounded at the lack of opposition from fellow Republicans at the potential for ballooning spending.

"The emphasis that Republicans have placed on (shrinking) the deficit is now going to be something that we will remember in the past," he said.

On infrastructure, health care, and high-stakes tax reform, Trump faces a difficult balancing act with fellow Republicans, who control both the Senate and House of Representatives.

He also wants to hike defense spending by US$54 billion, offsetting that with cuts in foreign assistance and other non-military spending.

To succeed, Trump - the consummate political outsider - may have to embrace Washington deal-making.

But some Democrats were dismissive.

"This plan doesn't add up," Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen told AFP.

"A third-grade math student can see that you're going to blow a huge hole in the deficit if you do the things the president is talking about."

Democrats are also anxiously awaiting Trump's signature of a new executive order on immigration to replace the one - blocked in the courts - that closed the US border to those from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The unveiling of the new measure has been delayed several times.