For one night at least, President Trump set aside the insults, the conspiracy theories, the rehashing of grievances, the dystopian visions of a country on the brink of ruin.
In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, Trump declared Tuesday that he had come to the House chamber to deliver “a message of unity and strength.”
Though Trump’s rhetoric took him to a new and loftier plane, however, the goals he spelled out were the familiar and divisive ones that have left little room for compromise and conciliation — as evidenced by the fact that the Democratic side of the chamber sat largely silent and stone-faced throughout his speech.
Nor did the president give his Republican allies in Congress what they had wanted to hear, which was a sense of clarity on how he plans to achieve the ambitious agenda he promised. There were few detail offered and no nod to the complexity of the issues nor the fact that achieving his goals will require navigating deep fissures within his own party.
“It was mostly a generic State of the Union, with plenty of bland cliches,” said Michael Waldman, a former chief speechwriter for former president Bill Clinton who now heads the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
But that in itself marked a new turn for Trump.
And for once, he largely stuck to the text of the speech as it had been written, veering only occasionally into the extraneous phrases that often creep even into speeches that he reads from a teleprompter.
Trump’s popularity stands at the lowest level for any new president in the history of polling. He has done little to reach out beyond his base of support.
The question remains whether this new and more presidential tone has signaled a turn in a steadier direction for his struggling young presidency, or whether he will again revert to the 6 a.m. Twitter version of himself.
Indeed, in the hours leading up to his speech, Trump had muddied his own message.
For instance, he opened his address with a condemnation of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and community centers.
But earlier in the day, Trump had suggested that those incidents might actually have been orchestrated as an effort to “make people look bad.” His implication was that they were actually “false flag” hoaxes.
In his speech, Trump renewed his promises to take a hard line on those who enter this country illegally.
“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone. We want all Americans to succeed — but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos,” Trump said. “We must restore integrity and the rule of law to our borders.”
The most concrete new proposal the president offered was to set up a new office in the Department of Homeland Security to serve victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. It drew groans from some Democrats in the audience.
“Immigration was the repeated jarring note. It is breathtaking to hear a president demonize immigrants, over and over, from that podium,” Waldman said.
In his campaign, Trump had spoken of building a “deportation force” to remove all the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants from the United States. More recently, however, he had said that figuring out what to do with those who were brought to the country as young children is “one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids.”
And hours before Tuesday’s speech, Trump told a group of network anchors that he might open to the idea of providing a pathway to legal status to potentially millions of people who are in the United States illegally but have not committed serious crimes.
Trump’s address was also notable for some of the standard Republican themes it did not include. He mentioned the federal debt only once, and the deficit not at all.
The first televised address to a joint session of Congress is one of the rituals that presidents have traditionally used to bridge political divides and build a broad sense of national purpose.
Fostering unity was a particularly strong imperative for a president who came to office without winning a majority of the popular vote.
In an interview Tuesday with the hosts of Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” morning show, Trump gave himself mixed grades on his performance in his 39 days as president: an A for his achievements but a C-plus at best on his messaging.
“I think I’ve done great things, but I don’t think I have — I and my people, I don’t think we’ve explained it well enough to the American public,” he said.
That statement puts Trump in a long line of presidents who have blamed their problems not on the merits of their policies, but on an inability to communicate them.
And despite his own assessment — “There are those that say I’ve done more than anybody in 100 days” — Trump has not kept pace with his recent predecessors in producing detailed proposals and tangible achievements.
By this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, he had already signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus bill that aimed to lift the economy out of a severe economic downturn. George W. Bush had proposed in detail a 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut. Bill Clinton had signed the Family and Medical Leave Act.