(Note: When I comment on events like this, I watch the event itself but not the commentators so I can avoid the “echo chamber” effect.)
Bottom Line: The speech was quite good, both as a performance and as an outline of Pres. Trump’s policy agenda.
- You can like the agenda, or loathe it, but he put its best foot forward.
- Most of all, the speech was “Presidential” and far more effective than the sharp tone of his Inaugural Address.
As a performance, it was serious but uplifting, outlining his big agenda in affirmative terms.
His decision to begin by condemning racial and religious hatred, and doing so with a bow to Black History Month, was perfect. It set the right tone.
The most riveting moment, one that brought together this deeply divided audience, was the President’s recognition of the widow of U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens. It was heart-wrenching to watch her stand there, crying over her loss and visibly praying for strength. Pres. Trump’s phrase that his sacrifice for our country is “etched into eternity” was perfect.
The most disheartening moments, at least for me, came when the Democrats refused to stand for even the most banal and uncontroversial applause lines. Why sit on their hands? Part of it, naturally, is policy. But part is politics, a party base seething over all-things-Trump and demanding full-frontal opposition from their representatives. Democrats who stand and clap do so at their electoral peril.
I was even more disheartened by the gasps, thumbs down, and even a few boos that came when Trump laid out the more contentious elements of his agenda, particular his plans to recognize and help victims of immigrant violence. The Democrats hated his reference to “draining the swamp,” and made that plain. I’m sure many Republicans did, too, but they were smart enough to shut up.
Again, my objection here is not to the Democrats’ substantive views here (though I do disagree with them). I simply wish they had listened respectfully in the chamber and then expressed their opposition outside it.
Along the same lines, I did not like the one or two moments when President Trump seemed to point out House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. At least he didn’t repeat her infamous line about needing to pass Obamacare to find out what was in the bill. In this setting, it’s unfair of the President, just as it was unfair of Pres. Obama to attack the Supreme Court Justices sitting in front of him. Pelosi had no chance to respond to Trump’s attacks during the speech. All she can do is sit there. She did, grumbling and visibly fuming.
Related point: I am not sure about the appropriateness of female representatives wearing “suffragette white,” which was done to support a variety of feminist political issues and take some attention away from the President. I can see both sides of the “appropriateness argument.” Again, the issue is the time and place, not the substance. It was a very visible political gesture, meant to counter the President. I couldn’t help but think that, grouped together, they looked like a church choir.
This hostile gesture will surely initiate a tit-for-tat spiral of clothing to indicate political stances at future addresses. I much prefer those statements to come before and after the speech, not during the speech itself.
Substantively, the most important takeaway is Trump’s embrace of the Paul Ryan approach to health-care reform. The package will emphasize market-oriented solutions, insurance sales across state lines, and health savings accounts. Trump made clear that he would include (costly) coverage for pre-existing conditions, though he did not say how he intends to pay for it. He underscored that there would be no mandates and that consumers could buy whatever plans they want. These health-care issues will be on the front burner for the next month and Trump turned up the heat.
Other issues were treated in broad terms, with a big emphasis on patriotism, “America First,” and (alas) economic nationalism. He underscored that he was elected President of the United States, not the world, but explicitly said that the US was committed to NATO and would remain engaged abroad.
As Trump laid out his agenda, he repeatedly said he is keeping promises made during the campaign. That’s smart politically, not only because it buttresses his reputation but because it tells Congress, “I ran specifically on these promises and won.” It tells them he has a mandate to accomplish these policy goals.
Trump’s plea for bipartisanship will fall unheeded, of course, but the Democrats will have to determine whether they are more endangered by their “hell no” base or by a “get something done” general public. My hunch: the base wins.
⇒ For Trump and his Republican allies, the speech was a strong, effective performance. They’ll need it for the coming battles on health care and taxes, battles within the party and with Democrats.