Donald Trump lowered his tone Tuesday evening in his first speech to Congress. A little less campaigning candidate, a little more president of the United States. Except that, under the veneer of moderation, his positions remain essentially the same—bellicose—and his speech didn’t say much about how he intended to implement and finance his promises.
Disguised as a vaguely sensible man, Trump almost rose to the occasion on Tuesday evening, if one were to find him credible. He at least understood that the august enclosure in which he found himself did not really permit him to behave badly. Like a good salesman, he reached out to Democrats, inviting Congress to end their “trivial fights” for the American common good. But it was, above all, over the immigration issue where he seemed to put the lid on his normal vociferousness—though not holding back, true to form, from heartily blending criminality and illegal immigrants.
In front of journalists in the afternoon, he allowed, for the first time, the possibility of the idea of naturalizing the status of millions of immigrants illegally in the U.S., which his diehard followers consider to be unacceptable “amnesty.” He returned during the evening speech to very vague terms relating to the idea of carrying out “positive immigration reform,” with a bizarre hat-tip to Canada and Australia for their “merit-based” immigration system. The Associated Press also indicated on Wednesday that Iraqi nationals could eventually be excluded from the anti-Muslim country immigrant ban. The White House is about to present a new version of this policy, after the major mess that accompanied the first sloppy version of the present decree several weeks ago.*
Does this mean that Trump is adopting the ways which accompany exercising presidential power? Consider, until proven otherwise, that the moderation he tried to display is still deceptive, in view of the violent rhetoric to which he has subjected the planet for a year and a half. At bottom, his speech was still steeped in salvation by protectionism. If, however, he has gained public opinion points with his presentation, according to the polls, he can undoubtedly thank Carryn Owens, the inconsolable widow of the American soldier killed in Yemen at the end of January, whose grief filled Congress Tuesday evening with emotion that was politically useful to Mr. Trump.
Whatever one thinks of the man, and however sinuous the electoral meanderings that led him to the White House, it is clear that his election illustrates the profound disappointment of a large group of Americans regarding the political class. Under the circumstances of this dysfunctional democracy, we can’t help but think that the Democrats would have been better advised to nominate Bernie Sanders.
That said, Trump again divulged very little of the details of how he would fulfill—and finance—his campaign promises.
Many are waiting for clarification, not without some impatience, starting with Republicans. By what squaring of the circle will he increase military spending to $54 billion and finance an infrastructure plan of $1 trillion all while “massively” reducing taxes and without touching Medicare (health insurance for the elderly) and the Social Security Act, social programs that make up a significant part of the federal budget?
As a result, the plans of the new president remain, a month and a half into his term, very confusing.
By comparison, Barack Obama had only been in power for a few weeks in 2009 when he asked Congress to vote on a plan to spend $1 trillion to address the financial crisis and laid the foundation of the bill to create Obamacare. He was better prepared.
*Editor’s note: This article was written before President Trump issued a new travel ban executive order on March 6, 2017.