U.S. President Donald Trump gave his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night in Washington, and to the surprise of virtually all who watched, he looked and, more importantly, sounded, presidential throughout the address. Trump was disciplined, sticking to his prepared remarks. His tone was subdued and the speech attempted to provide a vision for the country rather than focus on the man himself. As one especially vocal critic conceded after the address, Trump “became president of the United States.”
While we join those who applaud the president for this turn, a close look at the speech reveals its shortcomings. There was little indication of how Trump will structure the many priorities he identified in his remarks. He again played fast and loose with facts; one fact-checker found “numerous inaccuracies.” Overseas audiences will bemoan the lack of vision for foreign policy and the thoughts he did provide are alarming.
It was clear that something was different when the president began his address with a forthright denunciation of acts of vandalism and violence targeting Jewish Community Centers and Jewish cemeteries, as well as the shooting of Indian citizens in what appears to have been a hate crime. Trump said the country “stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” Neither he nor his administration has been that direct in previous comments.
From there, Trump noted “a new chapter of American greatness is now beginning. A new national pride is sweeping across our nation. And a new surge of optimism is placing impossible dreams firmly within our grasp.” He called this “the renewal of the American spirit.” Again, this optimistic tone marked a striking departure from previous speeches. But if the tone was brighter, the images he conjured up were no less dark than those of his campaign and his inaugural address.
The president sees a nation that has “exported jobs and wealth to foreign countries.” The inner cities are ignored, drugs are “pouring in” and infrastructure is crumbling from neglect. For Trump and his supporters, the U.S. is under siege from within and from outside, betrayed by an elite that serves its, rather than the national, interest and assaulted by nations that relentlessly pursue their own interests and exploit U.S. largesse. To address these problems, Trump reiterated solutions that animated his campaign: demanding free and fair trade — emphasis on “fair” — along with a wall on the southern border with Mexico, a $1 trillion infrastructure investment initiative, and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Trump did not ignore foreign policy concerns. He declared that he would renew and intensify the fight against “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase whose very use has become the subject of considerable debate, tighten immigration policies and increase the military budget. The pledge to boost military spending was applauded by Trump’s supporters in Congress, but it violates the 2011 Budget Control Act (often called the sequester).
It will take more than a presidential promise to ensure that defense spending increases. Indeed, budget issues will be a problem for Trump and his party. Many GOP representatives oppose any spending that increases the total budget, whether for the military or infrastructure. That concern dogs plans to reform health care. The subsidies that make health care affordable and ensure that millions of Americans are covered are anathema for many of those conservatives, a position that puts them at odds with the president. The first salvo in this fight was launched before the president spoke Tuesday night when GOP senators noted that the president’s reported budget, which cut the State Department budget by a third to support the defense spending boost, was “dead on arrival.”
Foreign audiences will be most worried by Trump’s assertion that “my job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” All national leaders represent their country, but the president of the U.S. has, since the end of World War II, also claimed to lead the free world. Yet U.S. leadership merited only a brief mention in his speech — that it is “based on vital security interests that we share with our allies across the globe.” That is a strikingly narrow conception of leadership, one that is balanced and limited by the reference to the need for partners to “meet their financial obligations.” Following repeated declarations of “America First,” along with disdain for multilateral commitments and institutions, the Trump presidency continues to worry its allies and partners around the world.
The Tuesday night speech closed with a rallying cry. “The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us. We just need the courage to share the dreams that fill our hearts.” The problem for anyone who watched, listened to or read his address is that it is not clear who he is referring to: Who is “us”? Historically, U.S. presidents have spoken to the world. Throughout his candidacy and during the first month of his presidency, Trump has preferred to focus on a far narrower audience. His speech this week was his first attempt to reach out to the many Americans who did not vote for him; yet even if many of them begin to embrace his message, the rest of the world remains concerned.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.