“President Trump embraced a health-care replacement plan that, among other important reforms, includes a tax credit to help individuals buy a health plan that fits their needs,” Strong said. “These comments demonstrate that the White House and Congress are coalescing around a particular approach that will help us keep our promise to the American people to repeal this broken law and replace it with a better system.”
But by Wednesday morning, other Republicans were conceding what should have been obvious: Trump hadn't really described a plan that was about to pass through Congress. Missing were any real specifics about who would lose coverage, how much a replacement plan would cost, or how of it would be financed. Trump did not describe the tax credits he was discussing, when there is a gulf between the refundable credit favored by Ryan and the tax deduction favored by the House Freedom Caucus.
“At this point there's a text floating around Capitol Hill,” said Mike Needham, the president of Heritage Action for America, a conservative group demanding the full repeal of the ACA. “There are CBO estimates. We need to get past the principles conversation.”
Trump, who follows coverage on cable news more than any past president, delivered a speech designed for the pleasure centers of cable pundits. But its lack of specifics is easier to see when the speech is compared to the first addresses by Presidents Barack Obama in February 2009 and George W. Bush in February 2001.
Obama's speech came at the bottom of the Great Recession, and right after the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allowing the president to name some deliverables. The stimulus bill, he pledged, would “save or create 3.5 million jobs,” with “more than 90 percent” in the private sector. The coming infrastructure would include “thousands of miles of power lines” and credits for “green” energy.
Trump's description of his own infrastructure proposal offered few details or checkable promises. It would, he said, amount to a "$1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital” and create “millions of new jobs” on the principle of “hire American.”
But that answered none of the questions Republicans have about the plan, which was floated in October and November, but has frequently disappeared from public discussion of the president's agenda. It didn't move Democrats, either — they have preempted Trump's plan with their own.
Bush's 2001 speech came in a comparable context to Trump's — Bush had lost the popular vote, and his Republicans had lost seats in both houses of Congress. He used his maiden speech with Congress to pitch his tax cut plan, which he'd run on, and offered human examples of how lower-income people could benefit from the cuts.
“Steven is a network administrator for a school district. Josefina is a Spanish teacher at a charter school. And they have a 2-year-old daughter,” Bush said at one point. “Steven and Josefina tell me they pay almost $8,000 a year in federal income taxes. My plan will save them more than $2,000.”
Trump, like Bush, has a tax plan that would benefit people at the higher end of the income scale more than it would benefit the poor. But he didn't do much to sell it. “We will provide massive tax relief for the middle class,” he said, after pitching his corporate tax cut. “We must create a level playing field for American companies and workers.”
But it wasn't clear what “leveling” he was referencing. The border adjustment tax, which Republicans in the House want as part of an autumn tax reform package? Trump has alternately criticized that and embraced it. In Tuesday's speech, which gave him his biggest prime-time audience since the election, he didn't really tell Republicans what he favored.
The Obama and Bush speeches, which polled well at the time — higher than Trump's — gave Congress clear signals about what the White House was about to do. Trump's speech, which has been rapturously reviewed by the media, simply wasn't so clear. In the campaign, Trump succeeded beyond the worst nightmares of his opponents by remaining positive but unspecific about what he'd do with power. In office, he has continued that approach, leaning heavily on daily news sprays with business leaders and lawmakers that create an impression of constant action.
During the campaign, Republicans who did not want Trump to be their nominee justified supporting him on the theory that he would sign off on the actions of a conservative Congress. That's still their hope. And if Trump gets good reviews for his public presentation, he theoretically has running room to sign Republican bills.