Trump’s Speech Before Congress Outlines Administration’s Goals
Presidential speeches before Congress definitely have a theatrical air about them. There is high flying rhetoric, long standing ovations, common Americans who have done wonderful things sitting next to the First Lady, and a party out of power that is trying to make the most of a bad situation.
Trump’s speech on Tuesday night before a joint session of Congress had all of them. But, in this case, it offered a bit more. A controversial president who has received a lot of criticism in the past month came across somewhat presidential. CNN political commentator and frequent Trump critic Van Jones later said “He became President of the United States in that moment — period.” That moment came when he honored slain U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens: and the chamber rose as one to give Carryn Owens, his widow, who was seated to the right of first daughter Ivanka Trump, a prolonged standing ovation.
That opinion was shared nationwide. Viewers nationwide approved of President Trump’s speech Tuesday night by 75%, with some Democrats joining Republicans in calling it “presidential” and positive in tone. Republicans and Independents found it “unifying,” though Democrats were slower to come around on that measure. The President gained support for his policy plans among viewers: Interviewed before and after the address, they came away from it more positive on his ideas for the economy, immigration, terrorism, crime and Obamacare.
One reason for the positive reactions to the speech was that it was well written and well delivered – a rarity since Trump is more likely to “ad lib” his speeches. However, it was also helped by additions made by first daughter Ivanka Trump, who softened the speech and made women’s health issues a part of the speech.
There was also some attention paid to foreign policy issues. The biggest one was the one that received the biggest applause, when Trump recognized the widow of slain U.S. Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens. Owens had died a few weeks ago in an operation in Yemen. The operation, which was planned by the Obama Administration, but given the “go ahead” by Trump, had been criticized by many as poorly planned and a failure.
Trump waited until the speech to respond forcefully. “Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero battling against terrorism and securing our nation,” the president said, as his widow looked heavenward. Referring to a conversation with SecDef Mattis, he noted “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies. Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.”
Of course this was a detour from previous comments of President Donald Trump about the raid where he avoided taking responsibility, and according to the Daily Beast Trump is considering delegating authority for high level anti-terrorist operations to the Pentagon. “The new proposal would instead give Secretary of Defense James Mattis the authority to launch time sensitive anti-terrorist operations independently, even in places that the U.S. does not have a declared combat mission.
Trump would still assume authority for the raids in one of the options under White House consideration, which would give Mattis the designated responsibility to act freely in fast moving situations. These would include drone strikes against agreed upon targets, counter-terrorism raids, or a hostage situation”.
In terms of foreign policy, Trump made it clear from the beginning that the Obama policy of “Leading from the rear” was over. Trump said, “Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead. All the nations of the world — friend or foe — will find that America is strong, America is proud, and America is free.”
He later noted, “To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform. Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.”
If there was a change in tone, it was in Trump’s attitude towards NATO. During the campaign, he repeatedly denounced allies who weren’t paying “their fair share.” However, in his speech, he focused on the alliance more than on the money.
Trump said, “We strongly support NATO, an alliance forged through the bonds of two World Wars that dethroned fascism, and a Cold War that defeated communism.”
He then turned towards the financial issue. However, rather than denouncing their actions, he lauded what they are doing. He said, “But our partners must meet their financial obligations. And now, based on our very strong and frank discussions, they are beginning to do just that.”
Trump made it clear that international obligations would take a back seat to US interests. Whereas 57 years ago President John Kennedy made it clear that the US “would bear any burden” in defense of democracy around the world, Trump took a step back.
Trump also implied that he wouldn’t interfere with the internal politics of other nations as much as Obama did. He said, “We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations.”
And, although he spoke of the value of American leadership, he also said, “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.”
When it came to addressing the war on terror, it was closely tied to border security and immigration. Trump said, “Our obligation is to serve, protect, and defend the citizens of the United States. We are also taking strong measures to protect our Nation from Radical Islamic Terrorism.”
It seems Trump’s strategist Bannon and his allies won (for now) a policy victory over others, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who advised Trump that associating Islam with terrorism plays into the hands of the enemy by risking alienating peaceful, law-abiding Muslims.
Trump asserted: “It is not compassionate, but reckless, to allow uncontrolled entry from places where proper vetting cannot occur. We cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to form inside America — we cannot allow our Nation to become a sanctuary for extremists. That is why my Administration has been working on improved vetting procedures, and we will shortly take new steps to keep our Nation safe — and to keep out those who would do us harm.
By closely tying illegal immigration to terrorism, he is able to blunt the arguments of those pushing for greater immigration.
Trump also made several references about the Middle East. The strongest was towards ISIS, where he said, “As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS — a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians, and men, women, and children of all faiths and beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet.”
Mention of Iran, however, was brief and limited to, “I have also imposed new sanctions on entities and individuals who support Iran’s ballistic missile program, and reaffirmed our unbreakable alliance with the State of Israel.”
Syria wasn’t mentioned at all, although Trump did imply Syria when he said, “The only long-term solution for these humanitarian disasters is to create the conditions were displaced persons can safely return home and begin the long process of rebuilding.”
Of course a presidential address to Congress wouldn’t be complete without a laundry list of plans that sound good, but will be difficult to institute. Trump boosted a one trillion dollar infrastructure bill, although there is no money for such a ambitious project. He promised Obamacare reform, although even the Republicans are split on how to go forward.
Trump also promised more defense spending and the elimination of the defense sequester. The problem is finding the money for a substantive boost in the Pentagon’s budget. Trump had hoped to find the money by cutting back on the budgets of the State Department and EPA, but that plan will find opposition from enough Democrats and Republicans to make that difficult.
Of course, the success of Trump’s plans will also depend on the Democrats and how they will respond. And, given the Democratic response to Trump, they still very skeptical and critical.
Former Kentucky Democratic Gov. Steven Beshear’s response to Trump’s speech seemed off track and was panned by most viewers. Many also wondered why a retired Democratic governor was making the response instead either a national Democratic figure or an “up and coming” Democrat. Many felt that the Democratic national leadership didn’t want to respond to Trump and there are no young Democratic faces to make the speech.
The Democratic reaction at the speech was equally erratic. Democratic congresswomen wore white – the traditional color of the American women’s suffrage movement a century ago. However, the white in the audience only highlighted how many Democrats refused to stand and applaud when Trump even spoke about bipartisan issues like supporting the American military or veterans. Many Democrats looked nervously around to see if others were clapping before they would clap. This isn’t the behavior of a party ready to regain the majority.
The problem is that the Democratic Party is still fighting its own internal battles. While many look at the battles in the GOP, there is still a fight for the heart of the Democratic Party between the Sanders group and the establishment Democrats. After a meeting of the Democratic National Committee last weekend, it appears that the Obama/Clinton faction has defeated the Sanders element – for now.
In the light of the Democratic internecine war, the Trump speech has even more impact.
Without a clear Democratic message to counter the Trump agenda, the Democrats are left with a general disapproval of Trump, but no direction to entice voters to vote Democratic in 2018.
Until Democrats can articulate a message of an America that voters prefer to the Trump vision, they will remain as confused as they were Tuesday night. And, Trump might continue to act presidential as he was Tuesday night.