The missing man arrived at the Capitol Tuesday night, sparking hope that he would finally make an appearance in the policy debates that have been roiling Republican lawmakers by taking up their banner and selling their agenda to the millions watching on television.
President Trump came to Congress to deliver his first joint address to the rank-and-file — a speech that is likely to please some with its general embrace of GOP policies while still falling short for others who would like to see him put more meat on the policy bones.
Trump did not even mention health care and an overhaul of the tax code — two of the most significant items on the Republicans’ ambitious agenda — until halfway through the address, well after renewing his pledge to fight illegal immigration by building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The speech hinted at certain positions. Trump seemed to voice some backing for imposing a tax on goods coming into the United States, a position that House Republicans back despite strong opposition from Senate Republicans. And he did endorse the plan of House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to use tax credits to allow Americans of all incomes to purchase health coverage in their remake of the Affordable Care Act. He also restated his campaign positions on retaining some portions of the ACA, including the assurance that preexisting conditions could not be used to deny people health insurance.
In his roughly hour-long address in the House chamber, Trump stuck to broad strokes about his optimistic vision for the state of the nation, pivoting from the dark assessment that he painted in his Jan. 20 inaugural address.
In some ways, it was the most detailed Trump has been on key issues, but he left himself plenty of wiggle room, which is likely to keep GOP lawmakers guessing about where he stands on their legislative disputes.
“Obviously the president is an important player in this, and it’s the piece of the puzzle that’s been missing in terms of Republicans making policy,” Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said Tuesday a few hours before the speech.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said the new president had a little more time to elaborate on the details of the legislation he would like to see emerge from Congress. But he said those need to come soon because the clock is already ticking on some big agenda items.
“We get the details within the next week to two weeks,” Lankford said.
It’s hard to envision President Trump as missing from the public eye because his first 40 days in office have been an all-consuming march through the global spotlight, sucking up immense amounts of energy. The president, through his ubiquitous social media presence, media interviews and press conferences, has weighed in on everything from ratings for reality TV shows to the public standing of an abolitionist who died more than a century ago.
That hands-off approach has its benefits, particularly if the congressional agenda crashes ashore amid Republican infighting — a distinct possibility. In that case, Trump will probably declare that he wasn’t much involved with the wrangling and blame congressional dysfunction for the failure.
But at some point, every president has to take command and steer the ship if there’s any hope of a true lasting legacy of achievement.
“It’s essential. We wouldn’t have had the Affordable Care Act without President Obama and, specifically, Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, coming in and sitting in the meetings with Republicans and Democrats and working out the differences,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democratic leader, recalled of the early days of Obama’s first term.
Emanuel arrived in the West Wing from his perch last decade in the House Democratic leadership, and he became a regular presence inside the Capitol leadership suites. When the ACA negotiations bogged down in the summer of 2009, Emanuel played shuttle diplomat between Democratic leaders and moderate Democrats, many of whom he helped elect to Congress years before.
Obama developed a well-deserved reputation as aloof from Congress over his eight years as president, but he would choose sides when he had to — such as during the ACA debate in late 2009 when he agreed with Democratic leaders to abandon the “public option,” a form of government-run insurance that would have competed against the private sector.
In his first year as president, George W. Bush settled disputes with fellow Republicans over the size of his historic tax cut and the contours of a sweeping education law.
Trump’s critics see his hesitancy to wade into the legislative details as the reason why Republicans have not been able to forcefully advance an ACA replacement.
“Many Republicans now are holding back waiting for a signal from the White House when it comes to legislation. They don’t want to get too far ahead of this president. They don’t want to be the victims of his tweets,” Durbin said.
Republicans hope that Tuesday’s speech marks a real turning point toward a more focused presidency.
Before the address, Republicans were privately expressing strong concerns that the West Wing is too consumed with the unimportant symbolic fight. Last week, at home for the congressional recess, Republicans came under verbal assault from town hall crowds concerned about eliminating the ACA. Yet on Friday, Trump used a major speech to declare the media the “enemy of the state.”
Back in late January, when Trump went to the congressional Republican retreat in Philadelphia, he delivered a 20-minute address that mostly talked about his 2016 election victory and left without taking questions.
Republicans are increasingly outspoken in their doubts about Trump’s understanding of the complexities of enacting complicated legislation. The end result could be that the man who wrote “The Art of the Deal” is going to mostly defer to whatever Republicans come up with on Capitol Hill.
“It may be that the president doesn’t have fully developed policy positions on a number of these issues,” Cornyn said. “He’s given us a 30,000-foot picture, but it’s part of Congress’s job to come up with the policies that hopefully they implement the president’s vision.”